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Cory Lidle Plane Crash

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

On October 11 2006 the men and women of the New York City Fire Department?s Manhattan Communications Office were sent from the normalcy of a Wednesday afternoon into the middle of a chaotic flurry of activity.

FDNY Communications

Unlike many other cities each of the Emergency Services in New York City has its own dispatch centers. The Police Department and EMS both have their communications centers in Brooklyn. Each of the City?s five boroughs has there own Fire Department dispatch office, which is responsible for the movement of apparatus for that particular borough. Overall there are 30 dispatchers and five supervisors in all five borough communications offices during the day shift. We work two 12-hour day tours, off for the next 24 hours, and then work two 12-hour night tours. After our last night, we are off for four days and every three weeks, we are off for five days.

If a person calls 911 and requests the Fire Department, they are switched to the Fire Communications office of that respective borough. While each office is separate, they are closely connected via telephone and computer, and each borough can process calls for the other boroughs due to overload or phone problems.

The Manhattan central office is located in Manhattan and staffed by seven dispatchers and a Supervising Dispatcher. There are three Alarm Receipt Dispatchers who answer and process calls; there is a Voice Alarm and Notifications Dispatcher who maintains contact with firehouses and other agencies. There are two dispatchers at the Radio Position, one who actually communicates with the field forces and the other dispatcher who inputs various codes and signals back into the system. The last position is the Decision Dispatcher who decides if the assignments are correct or need to be augmented.

The Incident

At 1442 hours on October 11, 2006 the Bronx central office took a call for a fire on the 30th floor of a high rise at 530 E. 72 Street. At the same time half of the 911 lines in the Manhattan Central Office ?lit up.? As the Supervisor, I was monitoring the conversations and several times, heard the words ?airplane into a building.? Based on the report of a plane into the building, I had the Decision Dispatcher send out the initial assignment for Box 1031 with 4 Engines, 2 Trucks, a Rescue and a Battalion. We subsequently added an extra engine, a Squad company, the Rescue Battalion and one of the city?s two Tactical Support units. As the phones continued to ring, we were getting conflicting reports of a plane crash, a helicopter crash, as well as reports of explosions at a hospital and at this point, the members of the tour were not sure if this was another terrorist attack. Based on the information coming in, I started out a collapse unit and a second battalion chief anticipating the transmission of a 10-60, which is the report of a major emergency and requires the transmission of an automatic second alarm.

The first report from the scene reported heavy smoke from a high-rise building, and Engine 44 transmitted a 10-75 indicating a working fire. This was immediately followed by the transmission of a 10-77 which is a fire in an occupied residential high-rise building. As the companies arrived on the scene and planned their attack, we were still getting phone calls reporting people trapped in the fire building. Since the scene was chaotic, we were getting conflicting reports. At one point, we were told it was a confirmed helicopter into the building. At another point, a 10-76 was transmitted for a fire in a high-rise commercial building only to be canceled because it was a residential building.

As the scene was chaotic so was the activity in the Manhattan central office. We were trying to verify if the correct assignment was sent in request for the help that was coming from the scene. Although the 10-76 was canceled, the units assigned were never turned around and did in fact operate. As the incident progressed we were getting phone calls from off-duty FDNY personnel trying to help in determining what had actually crashed or exploded. I had one of the dispatchers verify with both heliports on the eastside of Manhattan that they were not missing any aircraft. They then made contact with the NYPD to see if they had any information about the reported aircraft. The NYPD reported that all of the major airports had no missing commercial aircraft, but they did report that it was small fixed-wing aircraft that had crashed into the building.

As the situation escalated, there were concerns from the scene of people in distress above the point of impact. Initially, the officer of Rescue 1 requested a helicopter for an air-reconnaissance assignment. But this was already set in motion with the transmission of a multiple alarm in a high-rise building. The Air Recon chief is a Battalion Chief who is assigned to meet PD Aviation and responds to give information to the Incident Commander as well as a live feed to the Fire Department Operations Center located at Fire Department headquarters. Based on the anticipated rescue problems, the Air Rescue plan was assembled. The Air Rescue plan calls for two ladder companies and a Battalion chief, who are trained in high-rise roof operations, to meet the NYPD emergency services unit and aviation unit at a designated landing spot to prepare for an airlift.

As companies made progress, it was determined that it was, in fact, a fixed- wing aircraft that had crashed between the 30th and 31st floors of a 46-story residential high ?rise building. Since the incident occurred on a weekday, many residents were not in the building. Most calls received were from people who observed or heard the explosion.

Within 10 minutes of the initial report, there was 40 pieces of fire apparatus on the road to help in the rescue and suppression effort. In addition to the units that are normally assigned, several of the FDNY Marine companies responded to check the East River and the city?s Haz- Mat Unit and Haz ?Mat Battalion responded. It is also the responsibility of the decision dispatcher to cover open response neighborhood. This required us to call each of the other boroughs to gather resources to bring into Manhattan to cover some of the empty firehouses. This was no small feat as that each of the boroughs had active one-alarm fires, but the Bronx also had companies operating at a 5th alarm from earlier that morning and had relocators from the other boroughs as well. One of the problems faced with the rapid progression of the Manhattan incident was the delay in getting additional resources into the borough. There was a request for a Battalion chief at the interagency command post, but my nearest chief was just returning from relocation to the Bronx.

Because of the complexity and the severity of the incident, a Deputy Director of communications joined me in the central office. Earlier in the incident, in order to conserve resources, we implemented a reduced assignment response. With the arrival of the Deputy Director, we implemented two resource deployment areas, one in Brooklyn and one in Queens. These deployment areas enabled us to use these companies to go to the scene or be deployed into empty firehouses in Manhattan.

Although the office was crazy it was a calm crazy. There was no yelling or screaming, and everyone worked their position in a professional manner. Unlike previous incidents involving aircraft, none of the callers were overly excited or panicky. All of the dispatchers on the platform that day pitched in and assisted in the various tasks that had to be accomplished. There was a collective sigh of relief once we were sure that it was not another terrorist attack, and just an accident. For most of the tour working that day, this was their first major incident as a dispatcher. Some of the dispatchers were overwhelmed at the enormity of the incident and the inordinate amount of phone calls that were being received. As the incident wound down, we were able to do an in-house critique of the incident--- and take a breather.

The whole incident culminated in a 4th alarm response and was under control by 1634 hours although companies were standing by with a watch line until the next day.

Lessons Learned

  • Expect the unexpected.
  • We anticipated the transmission of a 10-60 for a major emergency when they, in fact, transmitted signals for a high-rise fire. In the beginning, there was no one radio contact or person -in charge. We had at last four different units transmitting various signals.
  • Think of all the resources that are at your disposal and use them. We, as dispatchers, have the authority to add units as we see fit for a given incident.
  • In the post 9-11 world, always expect the worse.
  • Keep it calm. - There was no yelling and screaming as there sometimes is faced with a major incident.

Conclusion

The dispatchers worked exceptionally well especially since all of the dispatchers had less than five years experience, and had the feeling that this was another attack. We persevered in the face of adversity and worked in the professional manner that is expected of dispatchers in emergency service.