Later this month, members of the New York City Fire Department and the New York City Police Department will face off for the 32nd time on the football field. The game, which garnered national attention in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks that killed eight active players and staff from the fire department’s team, symbolizes the friendly rivalry between these two vital city agencies. But recent conflicts and events highlight how easily a rivalry can escalate into a feud, and only add to the worries of New Yorkers concerned about how effectively the city’s emergency workers will respond should another large-scale terrorist attack occur.
Bruised Image for FDNY
Both agencies have had more questions then answers this year. Loutish behavior among firefighters grabbed headlines, with a New Year’s Eve firehouse brawl in a Staten Island firehouse leading to the suspension of five firefighters. Several reports of firefighters drinking or even using drugs while on duty led the department to implement a new, random drug testing policy.
Meanwhile, the police department was forced to handle the shooting death of 19-year-old Timothy Stansbury Jr., which occurred on the rooftop of the Louis Armstrong Houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and led many to scrutinize the way the police handle the vertical patrols done routinely in public housing developments.
Among those worried that police might be too eager to use their weapons is the fire department, at least according to an internal fire department safety memo sent to all firehouses last month and reported by the New York Post. In an incident similar to the Stansbury shooting, two firefighters opened the door leading to the roof of a public housing development, only to be confronted by two officers pointing guns at them.
Unlike the Stansbury shooting, the officers quickly holstered their weapons. The memo also mentioned that police department’s Operation Impact, which deploys officers to flood high-crime areas, including some public housing developments, frequently used rookie and inexperienced officers. Whether or not the memo was meant as oblique criticism of police procedures, the fact that it became public will certainly do nothing to improve the already-rock relationship between the two agencies.
Responding to Crisis
The most recent and serious disagreement between the two agencies is actually a longstanding one: who should be in control during a major emergency, such as a terrorist attack?
As reported by the Wall Street Journal, this dispute has at least some of its roots in the first World Trace Center attack in 1993. Then, police swooped down in helicopters to the top of one of the towers, despite not having authorization from the fire department, which was in charge of coordinating the rescue effort because of the bombing.
Though the door to the roof was locked, police managed to rescue 28 people. In the long run, however, the rescue angered the fire department, which considered the helicopter mission “a cheap publicity stunt”,” the Wall Street Journal reported.
At that time, confrontations between police and firefighters responding to accident scenes were fairly common, causing bad blood between the departments. In recent months, however, as the city tries to formalize its plans for how to coordinate its emergency response resources, the police department has been aggressive in trying to be the lead agency for nearly all emergencies.
The thinking is that, because the next terrorist attack could occur in an unexpected way, even seemingly routine emergencies such as a water main break should be handled by police. The fire department reportedly wants to be the lead agency not just at fires, but also at explosions and emergencies involving hazardous materials, damaged buildings and certain plane crashes.
"Police want to be in charge of everything. We're supposed to play nice in the sandbox. That seldom works because there's egos involved," Deputy Chief Nick Visconti, who represents chiefs for the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, told the Associated Press.
The Citywide Incident Management System, as such an overarching plan outlining responsibility for specific emergencies is called, remains a work-in-progress. Federal guidelines were approved in March, and the city remains at work trying to put together a plan that keeps all agencies happy and residents safe.
“Two Competing Cults”
In a recent court ruling related to a St. Patrick’s Day street fight between members of New York’s Bravest and New York’s Finest, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Sweet described the altercation as being between members of “two competing cults.” The two agencies will have to iron out their differences — at least enough to agree on a disaster plan — to fulfill their duties to make the city as safe as possible.