Death From Above

This story was written by Supervising Dispatcher Richard Pressler and appears in the August edition of 911 Magazine.

Manhattan- known for its skyscrapers is a mecca for tourists. These same buildings, while awe inspiring for tourists, provide a constant challenge for the members of the New York City Fire Department. Because of lack of space to expand outward, there is no other choice but to go up. There are numerous construction projects daily, whether it is using a crane as they build a new high rise or demolishing an older building, there is always the possibility of a major incident. With in roughly a two month period, there have been two deadly crane accidents in New York City resulting in the death of 9 people and major damage to several buildings. While both incidents were similar they were also different, and provided the dispatchers of the Manhattan Central Office with two challenging and unique incidents.


In New York City each agency has their own communication dispatch office. The police department's 911 System is the main answering center; while all the five fire department communications offices (one in each of the cities boroughs) and EMS are mostly secondary answering points. The fire department receives calls via 911 lines, 7 digit numbers, and operator assisted lines. The Fire Department also receives calls via an EMS/911 link, which is the NYPD SPRINT System sending certain runs to the FDNY Starfire system. Originally the system was designed so that requests for the Fire Department were transferred directly to Fire Dispatchers, who interrogated the callers while Police Department dispatchers monitored. Today most of the telephone calls are either taken by Police Department operators and the information given to the Fire Department dispatcher with no caller on the line, or transferred to a Fire Department dispatcher and the caller has to repeat the information. The calls that are processed via the Police link usually have limited information.

Crane Collapse - March 15, 2008

The first crane collapse occurred on Saturday March 15, 2008. The Manhattan Central Office received a phone call at 1422 hours (2:22PM) reporting a crane collapse at 305 East 50 Street. Box 861 was transmitted with the initial response being that for a minor collapse (Sidebar A.) Based upon the numerous phone calls and all reporting the same information, the incident was upgraded to a major collapse response (Sidebar B.) Minor Collapses are for loose bricks, facades etc., while a Major Collapse assignment is for collapses of floors, roofs, walls or unstable buildings or areas.

Minor Collapse ResponseMajor Collapse Response
  • A minimum of 2 Engines and 1 Ladder
  • a Battalion Chief
  • Rescue Company
  • Collapse Unit
  • Squad Company
  • SOC Support Truck
  • Rescue Battalion
  • Tactical Support Unit
  • 3 Engines
  • 2 Ladders
  • a Battalion Chief
  • 2 Rescue Companies
  • 2 Collapse Units
  • Squad Company
  • Rescue Battalion
  • Safety Battalion
  • Tactical Support Unit
  • SOC Support Truck
  • Haz-Mat Battalion
  • SOC Compressor Unit
  • Field Communications Unit

Engine 8, the first due engine, arrived within 4 minutes and confirmed a crane had indeed collapsed, and was leaning on a building. Once a complete size-up of the scene was done, and the extent of the incident was realized, the officer transmitted a 10-60 at 1426 hours which is a signal denoting a Major Emergency and also requires the transmission of a second alarm. (See 10-60 in 10 codes. The initial report from Battalion 8 was that they had 5 people trapped in the upper portion of the crane and companies were working to extricate the victims. Division 3 reported that they had a crane that fell backwards on to East 50th Street hitting a 30 Story occupied building. The crane then continued to fall totally collapsing a five story occupied townhouse, which trapped several victims. As the scale of the incident was becoming clearer, the dispatchers designated a fire department staging area at 1st Avenue and East 51st Street and EMS staging at 2nd Avenue and E 51st Street. The interagency command post was located at E 50th Street and 2nd Avenue. Normally the staging area is designated by the dispatcher after transmission of a second alarm in case the incident escalates. After the transmission of the 10-60, a battalion chief was assigned as a staging manager, and all units responding were given instruction to proceed to the staging area as well as the best access into the area. The early designation of the staging area provided early command and control of the incident. Frequent updates were also provided to EMS as to the growing patient count as well as the large scope of the incident. Because of the large operational area, the Incident Commander special called two additional trucks to act as FAST units (Firefighter Assist and Search Team). All chiefs and the FAST units responding to the incident were instructed to report to the command post while the remaining units were instructed to respond to the staging area The incident commander transmitted a 3rd alarm at 1450 and a 4th alarm at 1521 hours. The additional units on the subsequent alarms were used to search the numerous buildings that were damaged from the collapse. The collapse resulted in the death of 7 people, and numerous injuries to civilians.

Crane Collapse -May 30, 2008

The second incident occurred on Friday May 30, 2008. At 0806 (8:06AM) the Manhattan Central Office received a trauma run through the EMS/E911 link for Box 1191 located at East 91st Street and 1st Avenue. The only information in the original incident from EMS was a word "construction". However, at the same time that we received the run through the link, the 911 lines in the office started lighting up like a Christmas tree, and one of the dispatchers relayed across the room "Crane collapse East 91st Street and 1st Avenue." The decision dispatcher originally sent a response of Engines 22, 53, and 44, Ladders 13 and 43, Battalion 10 along with Rescue 1 and Squad 41. Because of the early information from our alarm receipt dispatchers, we were able to alert the companies on the Voice Alarm system and start them on the road. Based on the numerous reports of a crane collapse the decision was made to upgrade the assignment to the Major Collapse Matrix. The normally assigned Division Chief was notified of the numerous calls for a crane collapse and responded. Ladder 43 arrived and confirmed a crane collapse and reported that they had one person still trapped. Division 3, based on the information they were receiving via the department radio, requested the transmission of a 10-60 and its 2nd Alarm assignment. The crane in question fell across East 91st Street and destroyed a penthouse on the 23rd floor, and then took out balconies on several floors as it crashed to the ground. The Chief of the 3rd Division special called a chief as a staging chief, and we designated the staging area on 1st Avenue and East 92nd Street. The collapse resulted in the death of two workers, one on the ground and the crane operator, in addition one worker sustained serious injuries. The Fire Department also evacuated 8 buildings in the area of the collapse, in case of future collapses or due to damage. Unlike the first collapse no additional fast trucks were special called as this incident only incorporated two buildings.

Lessons Learned

  • As a result of the first crane collapse, when the second one occurred they were able to special call a planning chief, and the planning vehicle.
  • A staging area was established early. We anticipated the transmission of a 10-60 so we had all our units and designations prepared.
  • Due to traffic concerns we made sure that all the firehouses in the area were covered. We are able to get units on the road in a timely fashion because the alarm receipt dispatchers were in the same room and alerted the decision dispatcher of the impending incident.
  • FDNY personnel maintained a presence on the scene for several days. SO we must anticipate the need for relief companies for a prolonged period
  • We were able to watch both incidents on TV from a News Copter. Enabling us to get a better idea of how the incidents might progress.


As in any other city, just because there is one major incident going on, doesn't mean that everyone else goes home or won't need help. While there were no other major incidents, the Manhattan Central Office also dealt with the usual water leaks, stuck elevators and Class 3's (fire alarms). In order to maintain proper coverage the Fire Department has a system in place to "fallback" its responses. Fallback reduces the assignment to all working structural assignments to one engine, one truck and a chief. If additional calls are received, then the assignment is upgraded to three engines, two trucks, and a battalion chief. The dispatch offices have a summary screen which besides showing all active incidents, also show the availability as a percentage. During periods of heavy fire traffic, or storms when the percentages get too low the supervisor on duty confers with a Borough Supervisor to go to fallback. During the second crane collapse our availability was such that we didn't have to go to fallback. We also pull companies from the outer boroughs to provide adequate coverage in unprotected areas, which will help raise the percentage of available units in the affected borough. There is only one radio frequency to handle all fire traffic for the borough, so it is up to the radio operator to prioritize the incoming traffic and to control the radio. The Manhattan Central Office also is the location of "City Wide". All Signal 75 (all hands working), greater or multiple alarms, and unusual occurrences are announced by all boroughs to the City Wide dispatcher. All occurrences in Manhattan are also announced over the City Wide frequency.

Back in 2004 the Fire Department, in preparation for the upcoming construction boom and to provide some continuity between what is sent to the various types of incidents city wide developed a Matrix Table that outlines the units that are sent to Technical Rescue assignments. These consist of Collapses, Trench Rescues, Hi- Angle, Confined Spaces, Construction Accidents, Haz-Mat incidents and water rescues. The matrix outlines all the specialized units in addition to the normally assigned units that are dispatched to an incident. However, the Fire Departments computer system is not configured to except theses assignments apart from the engine, trucks and Battalion that are normally assigned, therefore all of the special units that are assigned all have to be manually added. This is what the decision dispatcher had to do during both crane collapses.

While it is the crane collapses that are the big story, there are several incidents at construction sites that occur on a daily basis. These accidents can range from a minor accident such as a worker falling off a ladder to the collapse of a concrete floor trapping a worker in a net thirty floors off the ground. As the city continues to grow it is not when the next incident will occur but where! The men and women of the Manhattan Communications Office are prepared and up to the challenges the construction boom will cause the office to face.