In the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, New York City's firefighters were overwhelmed. The quick dominance they exercised over structural fires - their "bread and butter," according to Queens Chief Bob Maynes - eluded them as they tried to bring order to the destruction in Manhattan. Adding to the chaos was the flood of resources pouring in from all over the country, including a distractingly persistent group of mostly wildland firefighters from the southwest.
That group, the Southwest Incident Management team, arrived on Sept. 12 to a less-than-enthusiastic welcome. The New York officials referred to them as "tree people" and suggested they might be more helpful in Central Park than on the scene of a horrific urban disaster.
"What can this guy in a National Park uniform do for me?" Maynes remembers thinking as Grand Canyon Fire and Aviation Chief and IMT leader Dan Oltrogge pressed for a meeting with the department's senior officers.
The five minutes that they finally grudgingly gave him went beyond changing their minds. They were the beginning of a shift, first by New York followed by other large departments in the country, in how emergency responders would be trained and organized for large events. The model would be the western incident management teams who had started developing strategies in the 1970s to address the same problems New York firefighters were seeing on a massive scale for the first time - not knowing their resources or where they were, or how they would house and maintain them; safety for displaced civilians; and reconciling differences in procedures and terminology across agencies as well as determining how the bills would be paid and who would pay them.
The evolution of that training was the topic of a briefing that FDNY officials gave at the park last week for emergency responders from throughout northern Arizona. Before coming here, they were in Phoenix assisting that city's department with developing its own incident management structure - something they've been asked to do across the country, Oltrogge said.
"For large-scale incident management, they're the leaders in the country for large metropolitan departments," he said. "Everyone is modeling what they're doing."
That wasn't the case in 2001, however. Officials were overwhelmed not only by the scale of the disaster itself but also by the complexity of dealing with a host of agencies from governmental to non-profit to private, managing the resources they brought and providing for them logistically.
"They've been accused of being our most helpful resource," Maynes said of the team. "What they did at the World Trade Center was help us to fix what we weren't good at. For the interagency stuff, we needed help."
By Sept. 17, the southwest team had helped them develop their first incident action plan that coordinated command, operations, logistics, planning and finances. After that, a Type 1 team from Alaska took over and 30 days after that, they handed full management off to New York fire officials. In 2003, the department contracted with the Forest Service for training to develop their own team which was mobilized to New Orleans in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina. Maynes said they now have a 50-member team they can deploy with another 50 to provide local support.
The concept of a multi-agency emergency response structure emerged in California after a devastating wildfire season in 1970. Initially developed as a way to standardize management for multiple agencies fighting wildland fires, the teams gradually expanded their scope to management of other disasters, both natural and human-caused. In the U.S. there are 17 Type 1 teams like those that assisted in New York, ready to deploy to the largest disasters to manage 500 or more emergency, relief and support workers.
While they still respond primarily to fires, Oltrogge's team was also mobilized to help with recovery of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003 as well as in the aftermath of hurricanes Frances, Ivan and Rita.