august 2013

Just after midnight on October 30, 2012, Chief Robert Maynes, Borough Commander of Queens, in New York City, found himself in chest-high surge waters from the Atlantic Ocean in the middle of a hurricane. As he waded his way to the scene of Box 1407 at Beach 130th Street in Belle Harbor, he came upon a situation amid this multi-state emergency. Several homes were engulfed in flames and winds were gusting to 90 miles an hour. Fire was communicating from the burning house to the downwind exposures via softball-sized firebrand transport. Just like, well, a wildfire.

A few hours earlier, one of the last things on Chief Maynes’ mind might have been his time spent as operations section chief on the East Zone Complex Wildland fire in Idaho in 2006. But the situation at hand called for exactly that. With limited resources available and access impeded throughout the initial attack phase of the response, Maynes knew he’d need an unconventional approach in order to stop the ember transport that was accelerating spread rates in sustained winds of over 60 mph. Rather than reverting to a structure-by-structure approach, where the next exposure would be the first line of defense, the chief drew on the use of contingency lines (in this case it was Crontson Avenue to the north of the Belle Harbor incident), applied direct attack methods at the “head of the fire” when it was safe to do so, and focused his resources in a “flanking action.” This was their only hope for controlling the conflagration.

With the fire mimicking the behavior of a wind-driven wildfire, Maynes patterned his strategy on wildland fire suppression tactics. It was his time spent working in the wildland arena, Maynes says, that proved key in helping to craft and apply a wildland strategy that was going to work in suppressing an urban conflagration.

The fact that Chief Maynes was reaching into his wildland strategy and tactics tool box in the middle of a hurricane was no accident. By design, the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) had been gearing up to handle complex incidents through a mandate for agency preparedness after the World Trade Center disaster that included system-wide incorporation of the Incident Command System (ICS), the purposeful crafting of an All-Hazards Incident Management Team (IMT) and an 11-year track record of training and deployment on live and simulated large-scale incidents.

History of the IMT

On September 12, 2001, Incident Commander Van Batemen and his Southwest Area Type I IMT were dispatched by the federal government to New York City. The team arrived at ground zero and was promptly referred to Central Park. By September 14, with great exhaustion felt citywide by local first responders, the Southwest Team managed to convince FDNY chiefs and administrators that they could organize local and mutual aid resources. According to FDNY Assistant Chief of Operations James Manahan, the effect of ICS through the IMT on the response was instant. The ability of this group of wildland firefighters to make sense of the logistical needs of ground zero so impressed the FDNY that with each day, the IMT was given added areas of responsibility including planning and finance sections in addition to logistics — coordinating key agencies including the FDNY, NYPD and Port Authority.

From that introduction, the FDNY has taken several steps to institutionalize the wildland staple of organizational success. Beginning in 2006, the department formalized the adoption of ICS into its day-to-day emergency response and fireground operations. ICS organization, terminology and leadership concepts brought operational continuity during transition periods, enhanced situational awareness and improved efficiency, according to Manahan. “Sectors” are now assigned to areas of a structural incident such as the “fire floor” or “exposure buildings,” facilitating improvements in incident organization and resource tracking.

The FDNY has also managed to furbish and maintain enough individuals to fill a certified Type II All Hazard IMT plus the capacity to fill a second team should the need arise. When the FDNY became sold on the value of the IMT, someone from the USFS quipped: “The good news is, they now know what IMT teams are; the bad news is, they now know what IMT teams are,” according to Maynes, who currently holds the spot of Incident Commander.

The team was Type II certified in 2005, and training has been funded by FEMA’s Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) Grant. To date, the team has a Type I certified Operations Section Chief, two PIOs and two Logistics Chiefs. According to Maynes, certification of the team to the level of Type I requires maintenance and resources. “It is impossible with just one Type I Operations Section Chief to mentor another into the positions during Type I events, such as Hurricane Sandy.” The goal is to have a Type II team with the capacity to handle Type I events.

With the support of top FDNY officials including Commissioner Salvatore Cassano, Chief of Department Edward Kilduff and former Chief of Operations Robert Sweeney, the team’s CV has grown to encompass an impressive range of all-hazard deployments both locally and nationally. Direct hurricane deployments began in 2005, when the FDNY’s IMT and 327 FDNY firefighters assisted the New Orleans Fire Department with Hurricane Katrina. Hurricanes Rita, Gustav, Lee, and in August of 2011, Irene, followed.

A myriad of other deployments makes the breadth of experience garnered by the team invaluable to All Hazards preparedness. These deployments included the team’s first wildland fire assignment, in 2006, when Chief Maynes went to the East Zone Complex in Idaho to work in unified command with the Atlanta National Incident Management Organization team. Since that time, qualified FDNY IMT members have deployed on the Southwest, Northwest and Southern IMTs in the wildland as a part of the FDNY’s approach to training and maintaining capacity.

The IMT in action

The FDNY’s Type II team was activated two days prior to the storm’s arrival through the third week of January, 2013. For the response phase of the hurricane, IMT incident commanders — Chief Manahan and Battalion Chief James Kane — assembled a short team of 45 to identify hurricane-related objectives that would facilitate the continuity of fire, emergency and medical 911 call response by the agency’s 353 fire and approximately 210 EMS apparatus ((The FDNY staffed an average of 634 tours per day in 2012, and there are three tours per ambulance per day. EMS Tour information is available at The IMT was furbished with 45 reserve engine, ladder, rescue and squad companies plus special units such as swift water boats and brushfire units and an additional 100 mutual aid ambulances.

During the height of the storm, the Incident Action Plan (IAP) was drawn especially to facilitate the removal of barriers to patient and incident access using reserve fire apparatus, while mutual aid ambulances were used in patient transport and evacuation for flood-zone hospitals and senior care facilities. The IMT also aided in boosting situational awareness between the city’s five boroughs and FDNY headquarters. By pre-assigning Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) designations to the reserve apparatus, the Ops Section chief could also supply IMT resources to the boroughs if needed for the 911 response.

As the incident peak passed, the scope of IMT objectives shifted to accommodate the rescue/recovery phase. The IMT targeted flooded areas of the city and divided each affected area into sectors staffed with taskforce leaders and a division supervisor. IMT task forces were composed of reserve apparatus, special apparatus under Special Operations Command (SOC) and several mutual aid resources including urban search and rescue teams. Completed objectives included the search and rescue of over 30,000 dwellings in the first 72 hours, dewatering, tree removal and the evacuation of numerous patients from care facilities in flood zones.

After 11 days of supporting FDNY 911 response continuity out of Brooklyn headquarters, Chief Manahan’s team accepted a role in facilitating the long-term recovery plan for the city’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM). The incident was named “Sandy Support” and was staffed with 65 FDNY IMT members and activated through the end of January. The IMT coordinated FEMA, AmeriCorps volunteers, New York National Guard Task Forces and assisted city agencies. Objectives included collecting and disseminating incident and public needs data with relevant city agencies; organizing field outreach and commodity distribution and IMT mentoring ((FDNY Sandy Support IAP, Sunday December 16, 2012, Incident Objectives- ICS202)).

Manahan’s team located their incident command post in an area directly accessibly to the heaviest hit area of the city at Floyd Bennett Field in Queens. Situated on a large parking lot, and outfitted with USFS-style IMT tents, propane heaters, bagged lunches, plastic outhouses, hand sanitizers, and a Christmas wreath over the door of the incident commander’s tent, the FDNY essentially nailed the USFS command  post look and feel.

Looking back to move ahead

By most accounts, the use of the IMT and ICS concepts during Hurricane Sandy aided the FDNY in both overcoming storm-related impedance to 911 call response and facilitating inter-agency and mutual aid delivery of recovery service in the aftermath. Looking forward, the role of the IMT during large incidents can still be enhanced.

In the month surrounding the hurricane (October 18- November 18, 2012), the number of fire and EMS incidents in New York City increased by 22,292 in comparison to the same time period in 2011 (Fig. 1). On the day the storm hit the city (October 29th), fire incidents increased 306% and EMS incidents jumped by 171%.

FDNY engine companies are staffed with Certified First Responder-Defibrillation (CFR-D) firefighters and officers and regularly respond to 23 life-threatening classes of segment 1-3 EMS calls including cardiac arrest, choking and major injuries ((FDNY DCN: 3.02.21 CFR-D Manual, Chapter 2, February 2, 2004, Section 3. Dispatch/ Response Guidelines.)).

Between October 29th and November 1st, the number of CFR-D runs conducted by engine companies were down by 33% (at least 306 fewer runs) compared to the 2011 daily average. This would have been attributable to the fact that engine companies were responding to fire incidents and unavailable. However, approximately 4,227 additional EMS incidents occurred between October 29 and November 1st compared to the same time period in 2011.

Each year an average of 17.1 % of EMS calls are responded to by FDNY engine companies, with approximately half of all EMS calls identified as CFR-D response eligible ((FDNY Vital Statistics 2008- 2012, available at

Therefore, it is possible that at least 1,450 of these extra EMS calls would have been CFR-D eligible, and approximately 725 would have otherwise received CFR-D engine company response. This makes for over a thousand CFR-D incidents that were possibly under-resourced during the storm. In 2012 alone, engine companies performed almost half of the FDNY’s pre-hospital saves (417 individuals were saved by engine companies and 472 by EMS) ((FDNY Vital Statistics, 2012 Calendar Year. Available at

On the fire side, 75 serious incidents occurred between the onset of the storm on October 29th and November 1, 2012. Incidents that occurred early, such as the Midtown crane collapse, were adequately resourced; but later incidents in flood zones were under-resourced ((This claim is based on the analysis of alarm classifications and actual resourcing levels derived for all 75 incidents by the author using time-stamped incident history data.)).

By the time the most devastating fire at Breezy Point was reported, FDNY units citywide were so inundated with pre-existing calls that it took an hour and a half to assemble the basic first alarm assignment of four engines and three ladder companies to the scene. In total, 126 homes were lost at that incident. Seventeen residential and commercial structures further east along the Rockaways on Beach 115th street were handled by just two apparatus for the first several hours.

At Belle Harbor, Chief Maynes was dealing with another 29 homes, 2 businesses and 3 garages on fire. The Rockaway incidents were severely inaccessible due to the surge, but the FDNY still had a major problem on its hands with resource availability. Even if there were no issues of incident access, engine and ladder companies first on scene to Breezy Point had traveled as far as 18-25 miles from Midtown Manhattan.

According to FDNY engine and ladder company availability calculations during the storm (produced hourly), there were inconsistencies in the levels of resource depletion by borough (see Fig. 2). A rigorous post-disaster analysis of the FDNY’s response to fire, medical and emergency incidents during Hurricane Sandy will be invaluable. Through disaggregation of call volumes by incident severity over time in critical time segments (i.e. in the lead-up to the storm, as the surge began, during the height of the storm, and in time increments following), a timeline of demand can be more adequately identified. Next, analysis of actual incident resourcing outcomes (response times, alarm assignment deployment time, network analysis of distances travelled and the frequency of out-of borough assignment of resources) should take place by incident type. This will reveal the actual resource trajectory.

A key recommendation of the McKinsey & Co. report post 9-11 was operational decentralization to the five boroughs in order to boost response efficiency, especially during a city-wide disaster. During Hurricane Sandy, the level of operational autonomy afforded each borough commander was further enhanced to facilitate the response. Overall, response deficits during Hurricane Sandy appear to pertain to issues of resource allocation and incident resourcing between boroughs.

By exploring which hurricane-related objectives are best-served centrally versus those objectives better served at the borough-level, the use of the IMT will improve. One possible solution could include expansion of the IMT in order to track and reassign resources more effectively between areas of discrepancy. Alternately, the activation of smaller IMTs for each of the five boroughs plus the activation of an Area Command team at headquarters may work.

Borough IMTs — much like Chief Maynes’ Queens IMT — could go about solving objectives relating to incident access — locally. A centralized Area Command could focus on intelligence and incident resourcing — citywide. One key output of Area Command could be assistance in upgrading real-time triage and priority guidelines as incident types expand or shrink with the disaster’s trajectory. Another key output would be optimum inter-borough resource movement.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, it is clear that demand was well in excess of supply during the storm. Both fire and medical incidents were at record highs. Effectively the FDNY bolstered its force by 600 uniformed members (the rough equivalent of an 11% increase in staffing), whereas incident demand increased on average 234% for fire incidents and 131-% for EMS incidents for days surrounding the storm. By re-creating the demand timeline and estimating the actual resource trajectory for Hurricane Sandy, shortages will become a known quantity and matching supply with demand for next time will become realistic.

Sharing operational knowledge

It is clear that wildland fire organization concepts have found a home in New York City. Arguably, the FDNY’s All-Hazard IMT success can now be used to inform the wildland urban interface environment in a multitude of ways. Yet, the wildland and structural fire response communities share a key operational unknown. The instance of multiple-structure, wind-driven conflagration is becoming far too common to continue to ignore.

As demonstrated in New York City during Hurricane Sandy, it does not take a wildland fire to create a situation that requires wildland strategies and tactics. In Queens alone, five simultaneous multiple-structure incidents occurred on the night of the hurricane. Each incident displayed unique issues in communicating both the exposure and the strategies, based on housing stock characteristics and on-scene weather conditions.

In addition, outside of hurricane-driven fires, the region experiences brushfires that have caused many operational problems in New York City area, including one fire in Staten Island that destroyed 125 homes in 1963 ((City of New York , Parks and Recreation, Community Wildfire Protection Plan For the East Shore of Staten Island, 2012.)).

Both communities must now work together to collect, analyze and implement a new typology of conflagration operations that incorporates concepts from wildland and structural operations.