Commissioner, I have a favor to ask

Commissioner, I have a favor to ask

The headline in a recent New York Newsday was simple and direct – “Von Essen: Commanders Lost Control.”

A few years ago at one of the major fire service conferences, I was honored to have lunch with then-FDNY Commissioner Thomas Von Essen. We had a very nice lunch, chatting about some folks we both knew and the intricacies of running the FDNY, and as he was called to the podium, the commissioner remarked that if I ever had a request or favor, just drop him a line. Well Tom, it took a few years, but here’s my simple request:

Leave your fire chiefs, or rather, your former fire chiefs, alone. They’ve suffered enough.

Since Sept. 11, anyone with first-hand knowledge of handling those terrible events and the immediate aftermath is in great demand to help those planning for the next terrorist attack. Some of the best lessons come from those who already lived and managed similar attacks. So on the surface, listening to Von Essen remark about the inadequacies and shortcomings of those uniformed fire officers is important to emergency managers and planners throughout the world. But I’ve heard enough from the one man who should be singing the praises of some of the most beaten and battled fire officers our profession will ever see.

Just do some rough math to get an idea of the enormity of their task after the collapses. Tell me if you’d want your former boss telling the world how you lost control of the biggest incident that ever occurred. One out of every 17 FDNY firefighters died in the space of one hour – 343 lost. Every rank from probationary firefighter to chief of department took losses.

Despite their strength of 11,000 people, FDNY is really like a small town with family, friends, neighbors, cohorts, cousins, brothers, fathers, daughters, wives and sons. Everybody knew somebody who was dead, and most knew hundreds. The sense of loss was overwhelming and immediate.

Commissioner, you tell the story of how you and Mayor Rudy Guiliani were saved after turning one way, while another entourage turned the other way and was killed. It was an unprecedented day. War on America has been used, and FDNY firefighters were the troops on the front lines, taking enormous hits.

After seeing what you did that day, with your history with the uniformed fire chiefs of the department, I have to ask how you feel about questioning the performance of these fine people in the immediate moments after the attack. Commissioner, your own chiefs lost their friends, their family and their co-workers. Choking with the dust and debris, some of them trapped themselves, it took time for the command staff to regroup and put an incident team together. What else did you expect them to do?

I find it sad to have you criticize the very same group of people that you sought to abolish a few short years ago. For those of you who are unaware, as part of a proposed FDNY reorganization presented by Von Essen, all battalion and deputy chief positions would be abolished and replaced with commander level I and IIs, both to be appointed by the commissioner. Multiple levels of New York state courts saw the move as a direct assault on the competitive promotion process that was the cornerstone of FDNY promotions for years. Recently the New York appellate court agreed ruled that this was a thinly veiled attempt to subterfuge the competitive promotion process and allow the commissioner the right to pick and choose on subjective criteria. The current system will remain in place. While all competitive examinations have flaws and deficiencies, there’s a fear of a system that allows too much personal input into the middle levels of management.

With such a rough history of labor/management problems, I’m not surprised to see you point out the failings of these fine folks right after Sept. 11. As a great country music fan once told me, “If you want to see how a system reacts to a major tragedy, just look at the system before the major event and you’ll figure out how they’ll do after it.” So I guess what occurred before Sept. 11 is still clouding how you view the events after. I wish you would drop the previous stuff for once and for all. You did a lot of good things and are a remarkably intelligent human being.

I honestly wish that you had gathered up all of the survivors of the World Trade Center disaster in one big huddle and told them something like this: “Folks, this has been the worst event that has ever occurred to any fire department in the world. Let’s forget about everything else that happened between us before today. We’re going to walk down this mountain of sadness and be the greatest group and most together fire service organization that has ever lived. Everything else is history; today we are together as the FDNY, from commissioner to probationary firefighter.”

If you had done that, you would have had no room in your heart to criticize fire chiefs who saw, heard and witnessed the worst murder of firefighters in our history. They are only human, commissioner. Please give them a break. – Chief Glenn D. Usdin Lancaster Township (Pa.) Fire Department

Ed.: For an interview with Von Essen about the events of Sept. 11 and his reaction to criticism of his post-Sept. 11 remarks, see “The Commish,” page 28.

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