The attacks on the World Trade Center towers resulted in the largest concentrated emergency-service response in American history. At least 100 EMS units and dozens of private ambulances raced to the site, setting up triage centers from which to ferry the wounded to hospitals. More than 2,000 NYPD and Port Authority police officers secured the area, searched the Towers, and rescued survivors. But the response was, first and foremost, a Fire Department operation.
In a standard single-alarm fire, a total of six units—three engines, two ladders, and a battalion chief—respond. A five-alarm fire brings 44 units. September 11 was on the order of five five-alarm responses, involving more than 214 FDNY units—112 engines, 58 ladder trucks, five rescue companies, seven squad companies, four marine units, dozens of chiefs, and numerous command, communication, and support units.
Coordinating all that personnel and equipment fell to the department’s dispatchers, who at the time worked out of command centers in each of the five boroughs. The FDNY has never released its official fire report on the disaster, but from a combination of dispatch logs, independent reports, oral histories, and extensive interviews with firefighters, dispatchers, and commanders, a sketch of its response can be drawn. The hundreds of individual dispatches can be grouped into ten waves, from the initial rush to the scene, to backup units sent in after the first collapse, to recovery operations later that night.
But this account conveys only part of the scale and complexity of the FDNY’s response. Off-duty firefighters and entire companies “self-dispatched” to the site without orders. So did numerous ambulances and police officers. The area around the Trade Center quickly became a “parking lot,” in the words of one police radio report, making it impossible for many units to report to the alarm boxes and staging areas they were assigned to. Of the 214 or so units dispatched, only 117 of them activated a “10-84” status signal that let dispatchers know they’d arrived. The details of what many companies did at the scene remain hazy; the operations of twenty companies that were wiped out are simply unknown.
When the North Tower collapsed, Chief of Department Peter Ganci and many upper officers were killed, leaving the department without a central command. The FDNY’s glitchy radios (which had similarly failed in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing but were still in use) left firefighters unable to coordinate their movements or talk to commanders. The police radios worked much better, and most NYPD officers were evacuated from the North Tower after the South collapsed. But traditional departmental turf wars meant there was little communication between police officers and firemen, who lost more than 100 of their number in the second collapse.
Joe Flood is the author of The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City—and Determined the Future of Cities.