Miracle from Above

This story was written by Supervising Dispatcher Richard Pressler and appears in the Jan/Feb/Mar 2009 edition of 911 Magazine.

Thursday January 15, 2009 was an unusually cold day in New York City. The air temperature was in the upper teens to the low twenties, the water temperature was 42 degrees; with a wind chill factor making it feel like 11 degrees. An Arctic clipper also came through producing a coating of snow. Besides bringing bitterly cold temperatures, the cold front also brought quite a bit of fire traffic.

The firefighters and officers in the Fire Department of New York work 9 hour day tours and 15 hour night tours, most of them work a 24 hour tour. The dispatchers of the FDNY work 12 hours shifts starting and ending at seven. Dispatchers are only allowed to work 18 consecutive hours. The firefighter and officers who worked the night tour of January 14th and the day tour of January 15, 2009 were in for a busy 24 hours. The men and women of the Manhattan Communication Office were in for a busy day tour. However, they didn't realize how busy!

As the men and women of the Manhattan Dispatchers office were reporting to work for the day tour on January 15, 2009, they were relieving personnel who were dealing with a 2nd alarm fire at Box 1540 located at 154 W 132 Street. This was the 3rd fire since midnight in the borough of Manhattan. The day tour would end up being just as challenging. At 1030 hours they were faced with another 2nd alarm fire was transmitted for Box 670 located at 46 W 29 Street. This fire came in as an automatic alarm for a fire in a commercial occupancy. With the extreme cold, companies were faced with frozen hydrants, heavy fire load and other obstacles. Because of the inordinate amount of fire activity as well as several winter related incidents Manhattan was placed into Fallback Step 3 (see sidebar). Things had started to quiet down when there was another one alarm fire at Box 602 located at 461 W 22 Street. Manhattan has reverted out of fallback and activity had slowed down, and here it was only half way through the work shift.As they say it was quiet until it got busy!!!

Fallback-Fallback refers to procedures that are implemented during busy periods. It is divided into 3 steps.
  • Step 1 - No engine is sent to an ERS no contact (no voice contact)
  • Step 2 - 1 Engine is sent to mechanical boxes (Normally gets a structural response)
  • Step 3 - 1 Engine, 1 Ladder and a chief sent to all reported structural fires

US Air flight 1549 had just taken off from NY LaGuardia Airport when, at 1529 hours, according to published reports, they reported a bird strike, and they were returning to the airport. LaGuardia's tower notified city agencies via an emergency network system of a Call 4-2 which is a minor emergency (Crash Box). In the next couple of minutes, dispatchers in the Bronx and Manhattan Central Offices were receiving calls for fire coming from a plane's engines at various locations.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has developed an emergency activation level to notify city agencies of an impending incident.
  • Call 32/42 - is a minor emergency (NO FD Response)
  • Call 33/43 - is a moderate emergency (FD may be requested)
  • Call 34/44 - is a major emergency (FD responds.) FAA Personnel in the control tower also pull the FDNY alarm box

In order to expedite processing times the Fire Department of New York has instituted a program to prerelease an incident. Once the alarm receipt dispatcher gets a borough, an address, nature of the emergency and where in the building, they will prerelease the incident for dispatch. After the incident is prereleased, the dispatcher then will verify cross streets and obtain a call back number. At 1533 hours Manhattan received the first of several phone calls stating that a plane had just landed in the Hudson River, which is a tidal river that separates New York and New Jersey. Since this incident could be viewed by people in two states, 911 operators in New Jersey were also receiving calls. Subsequent phone calls to the Manhattan Central Office advised that the passengers were self evacuating the plane and were on the wings. The first call was processed and released to the companies in 31 seconds. Box 868 was transmitted for a plane in the water at W 50 Street and the Hudson River. Unlike many cities that base their responses on addresses, the New York City Fire Department is based on Box locations which experience has found to be simpler, faster and more efficient, thus the initial assignment for Box 868 also include Rescue 1 and Marine 1. (These units would have been assigned anyway because of the type of incident). . Since there is no set response for a plane in the water, the decision was made to send a full structural response in addition to the normally assigned Rescue, Marine company, normally assigned squad, the rescue battalion, the safety battalion, and a tactical support unit. Based on the calls reporting several people in the water and people on the wings of the plane, the Decision Dispatcher also started out a second rescue company.

At 1536 Rescue 1, who is quartered 6 blocks from the incident, arrived and urgently confirmed a large aircraft in the water with numerous people in the water. Battalion 9, who was the original incident commander, based on the information received from Rescue 1 and confirmation from the Police Department of a commercial air liner in the water, transmitted a 10-60 Major Emergency* which also requires the transmission of 2nd Alarm. Due to the activity level, Manhattan was again placed into Fallback Step 3. While most of the Fire Department activities were centered on the main crash site there was also Mother Nature to deal with.

10-60 Major Emergency - provides the response of an enhanced 2nd alarm and is transmitted for a major collapse, plane crash (not associated with a crash box), train derailment or similar emergency with the potential for multiple casualties. The total response will be 8 Engines, 5 Trucks (one being the FAST Truck), 6 Battalion Chiefs (3rd due chief is Safety Officer; 6th due chief is Resource Unit Leader), 2 Deputy Chiefs, 2 Rescue Collapse Task Forces, 2 SOC Support Trucks, SOC logistics van, Squad 1 with is Technical Response Vehicle, 1 additional Squad, Rescue Battalion, Haz-Mat Battalion, Safety Battalion, Field Communications Unit, Satellite Unit with its associated Engine, RAC Unit, and a Mobile Command Center). Also a FDNY Battalion responds and meets NYPD Aviation to provide Air Recon.

Since the Hudson River is a tidal river, the plane was actually moving south with the tide. Several commuter ferries were first on the scene and started rescuing passengers who were in the water and from the wings. Rescue 1 launched their zodiac boat, while Marine 1 responded first with their small boat and once the large boat obtained the needed manpower it also responded. Because of the complexity of the situation, the Fire Department of New York's marine division started out all of their boats. Marine 6 responded from its berth in Brooklyn while Marine 9, which is berthed in Staten Island, responded with manpower consisting of an Engine company, ladder company, a Battalion, and Rescue 5. The reason the third rescue responded on the boat is that all of the city's five rescues are SCUBA qualified and they wanted to assure back up divers were closer to the landing site. Due to the moving scene, incoming units on the 2nd alarm were split between the main crash site and to pier 80 which was where the ferries were docking with the rescued passengers. Division 3, who responded on the signal 10-60, became the incident commander at the preliminary landing/crash site. Division 1, which was the second deputy assigned on the 10-60, responded to Pier 80 and became the incident commander at that location. Because of the different locations received and based on the possibility of a large debris field, several additional boxes were sent out. Fire Department units were dispatched to W 187 Street and the Hudson River, W 135 Street and the Hudson River and W 96 Street and the Hudson River. In addition units were dispatched to the 30th Street heliport to assist with ferries and or helicopters that may be brining in victims. Since ferries were transporting the victims to either side of the river, the North Hudson Regional Fire Department also had a response to the Arthur's Landing dock in Weehawken NJ where they assisted EMS personnel in removing the injured. The North Hudson Regional Fire Department also dispatched a fire boat to assist in the rescue operation. In addition to the FDNY boats, there was also a response from the New York Police Department which included boats and helicopters as well as the United States Coast Guard.

While the office was busy dealing with the plane crash, it also was dealing with the same weather related incidents that had been prevalent through out the day. In addition the dispatchers also had to provide coverage for the areas left empty by units responding to the plane crash. Throughout the incidents of the day over fifty relocations had taken place with thirty of them occurring for the plane crash.

After the passengers and crew were rescued, there was still the plane to deal with. The plane had drifted with the current downstream where it eventually it was corralled and tethered to a dock at the south cove marina located in Battery Park City. Since the plane still had most of its fuel on board the Fire Department kept a foam unit and other equipment on the scene for several days. The units remained on the scene while governmental agencies conducted their investigation until the plane was removed out of the water and to a barge.

Lessons Learned
While the incident proved challenging there were several situations that added to the chaos of the situation.

  • The biggest issue was that, compared to most incidents which are stationary, this incident was actually moving.
  • While it is not required, a staging area with a staging area manager should be designated early on in large scale incident in order to provide more control of the units that are responding.
  • The incident commander wanted the assignment split to cover both the main site and Pier 40. This decision seemed to come after units were already on the scene so there was some confusion as who was where.
  • A second staging area and/or transmission of a greater alarm could have been requested in order to alleviate some of the issues with the split assignment and to insure ample manpower had both locations.
  • Since the plane landed on an interstate waterway there was little if any communication between the various agencies on either side of the river.

As the investigation continues into the safe water landing of an aircraft, the men and women of the Manhattan Fire Communications continue to serve the people and visitors of New York City. January has been a very busy month not only in Manhattan but through out the five boroughs. In fact later on that night in Manhattan there were three other one alarm fires. Citywide in the month of January there were almost three hundred one alarm fires or greater. The dispatchers in all the central offices always work in a manner that exemplifies the professionalism and esprit de corps of the New York City Fire Department. The dispatchers are always up to the challenges of protecting the people that just drop in to visit, work in the city, or the millions of people that call New York City home.