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More reactions to 9/11 response

August 12, 2002

The head of the fire officers union declared last week that a fire chief ordered firefighters down from the north tower of the World Trade Center at 9:32 a.m. - 27 minutes before the south tower collapsed and 56 minutes before the north tower collapsed.

The problem, said Peter L. Gorman of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, was that virtually no one heard the chief's command because of faulty radios.

Gorman's claim contradicts the view expressed in this column last week by Sally Regenhard, whose firefighter son died in the attack and who complained the Police Department failed to communicate its concerns about the north tower's imminent collapse to the fire department. Regenhard referred to a police helicopter transmission "21 long minutes before [the collapse] occurred" - at 10:07, or 35 minutes after the fire chief's order. The north tower collapsed at 10:28.

After reading Gorman's comments, she said, "I don't know what to think."

Her complaint, nonetheless, prompted a spate of correspondence regarding issues between the police and fire departments that should be heard by all New Yorkers. Here are excerpts:

"I am a NYC police officer and I do feel for Sally Regenhard. But some of the comments made really upset me. She mentioned that the death of all the firefighters was the police department's fault. How would the Police Department know if the buildings are going to collapse?"

"Aviation [a police helicopter ] was there not for the firefighters to use but to try and evacuate people from the roof top. They radioed that the conditions are getting worse and they couldn't land to pick anyone up. Why didn't the fire department pull out then?"

"I have much sympathy for Ms. Rengenhard and everyone who lost a loved one, but the FDNY protocol is to set up their command center directly below a fire or incident. The NYPD mobilizes its units and command center outside a frozen zone [incident area] and away from the catastrophe, limiting and controlling the amount of personnel to effectively deal with the situation. Because of the NYPD protocol, many of my friends and brothers [NYPD] were saved by responding to the mobilization point a couple of blocks away instead of proceeding directly to the WTC."

"All of us with some experience in emergency preparedness know that these response flaws are not new. In spite of the efforts of mayors and commissioners ... the problems of interagency command, control and cooperation have lingered, and maybe became more severe, over the last 30 years. ... I remain extremely concerned that we are not moving fast enough to be better prepared for another strike."

Sheirer's Role. As the failure on Sept. 11 of the Office of Emergency Management to develop a joint response between the police and fire departments becomes more obvious, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is seeking to distance himself from OEM's former head Richie Sheirer.

Bloomberg's director of communications, Bill Cunningham, pointed out that last week's One Police Plaza did not make clear that Sheirer, who headed OEM at the time of the WTC attack, no longer works for the city.

Cunningham said Sheirer retired in April and that Bloomberg appointed OEM's first deputy John Odermatt, a bonafide pro, to succeed him. Odermatt, Cunningham added, already has run two joint emergency drills that police, fire, state and federal officials all attended.

During Sheirer's 18-month tenure at OEM, he ran none. The problem was that owing to his meager credentials - Sheirer was a fire dispatcher before Howard Safir, who served as both fire and police commissioner, made him his top assistant - fire and police officials didn't show up.

While Rudy Giuliani created OEM to coordinate joint police and fire emergency responses, he ended his term by turning OEM into a dumping ground for incompetents. (Safir's hapless spokesman Marilyn Mode also camped out there for a year.) As for Sheirer, he now works for Giuliani Partners.

No More Sindone? Outgoing Deputy Commissioner of Trials Rae Koshetz has found Capt. Dennis Sindone guilty in connection with ripping off a drug dealer in 1996, and has recommended his dismissal. Sindone, the highest-ranking NYPD officer ever charged with corruption, was acquitted by a federal jury last spring. Final decision will be made by Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.

Leave It to Howard. Rubenstein Associates is already trying to make a buck off the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association's negotiations with the Public Employees Relations Board for a new contract. Amid rumors that cops, unhappy with PERB's recommendations, may strike, a Rubenstein fax appeared, announcing that lawyers from the firm of Akin, Gump are "available for interview ... to comment on the legal issues surrounding the New York City Police's threat of a strike." Akin, Gump are Rubenstein clients, and have nothing to do with the strike.

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© 2002 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.