When a fire officer arrived at the scene of a possible car fire in Times Square earlier this year, he sensed right away that something was wrong. After detecting a smell like firecrackers in the air, he spoke to police officers in the area, who told him that the occupant of the vehicle had run away. The fire officer asked the police to run the plates, which turned out to be unregistered. Their suspicions raised, fire officers evacuated the area and called in the bomb squad, which found explosives in the vehicle.
Joseph Pfeifer HKSEE 2006, MC/MPA 2008 describes the chain of events as a series of small pieces of information that tested—and confirmed—the ability of first responders to prevent a terrorist attack. As chief of counterterrorism and emergency preparedness for the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), he has been in the forefront of preparing public safety officials for such moments; Pfeifer developed the department’s first Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness Strategy. That the Times Square attack was thwarted is a tribute, he says, to “the department’s efforts since 9/11 to increase situational awareness of our members through training and information.”
Of course, the specter of 9/11 looms over the Times Square incident, as it still does over the city itself. And Pfeifer, perhaps as much as any other individual, has been shaped by the events of that day, driven by personal tragedy and professional resolve to ensure that what he lived through will never happen again.
The first chief to arrive at the World Trade Center after the first airplane crashed into a tower on the morning of September 11, 2001, Pfeifer sent firefighters up the stairs to rescue people trapped above the fire. His brother, Kevin, a lieutenant, was among them. It was the last time Joseph saw Kevin, one of 343 firefighters who died trying to save others.
As he was walked back to the firehouse after working all day at the World Trade Center site, he realized the magnitude of the events that fateful day. The world had changed, he says. And he would change along with it.
“The events were a cultural trauma,” he says. “It affected the entire world, how we view ourselves, how we view terrorism, how we respond to such an issue. We went from being in a firehouse, which is very local, to being on a world stage through a single event.”
A NEW STAGE
On September 11, Pfeifer could have been on a golf course instead of on the job. He had celebrated exactly 20 years on September 5, 2001, and was eligible to take his pension and retire. But he, just like his brother, loved being a firefighter.
Soon after 9/11, Pfeifer acknowledged that he didn’t feel the same passion for the job anymore. Yet the ability to have control and make changes has rejuvenated his enthusiasm, he says.
He points to one improvement in emergency management: a new electronic command board that the fire department has developed through a public-private partnership with Raytheon. During 9/11, the department relied on a simple magnetic whiteboard to track where units were deployed; it was lost when the towers collapsed. The new electronic system, slated to be implemented at the beginning of 2011, will allow public safety officials to coordinate emergency response from a central command post and includes portable command boards for chiefs to access information on site.
“We’ve moved from manual technology to cutting-edge technology that no one in the world has in pushing to create a new system for commanding,” says Pfeifer. “It’s innovative; it will assist in crisis management; and it will have better accountability for the safety of firefighters and first responders.”
Pfeifer directs at the FDNY’s Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness, which he founded after 9/11. In that role, he runs mock disaster scenarios approximately 40 times a year — for example, simulating a terrorist attack in the subway or a pandemic afflicting city residents — and produces weekly analyses of crisis responses throughout the world.
He emphasizes the need for the fire department to collaborate with other organizations, such as the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, which shares educational and training efforts with the FDNY. The department also initiated the Fire Service Intelligence Enterprise, which connects fire officials with intelligence agencies in tracking possible terrorist threats and methods of attack. Pfeifer notes that fire departments can help law enforcement with security concerns, offering expertise on issues such as how structures collapse and hazardous material mitigation. “The intelligence community has been pretty exclusively law enforcement, but we’ve pushed their thinking to consider nontraditional intelligence partners like the fire service,” he says. “We believe we can contribute to and strengthen homeland security.”
He cites the crash of US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River to highlight how local officials shared information through a homeland security network, updating federal authorities and the White House on the progress of the rescue operation and confirming that all the passengers had been saved. Pfeifer says the incident also exemplified the transition from a hierarchical command structure to a network approach, harnessing the knowledge of a team including fire, police, airport, and Coast Guard officials.
Such collaboration overcomes the problem of “organizational bias” during emergencies, a subject Pfeifer has written about and experienced firsthand. On 9/11, for example, radio communication from helicopters wasn’t shared across organizations, leaving fire department personnel like Pfeifer unaware of what was occurring. “During a crisis, people naturally migrate toward their own organization,” he explains. “Because of that, as the stress of an incident goes up, people tend not to share information outside their organization. That’s the key problem first responders have to deal with.”
In April, Pfeifer spoke at the Kennedy School about the response to that plane crash as well as his experiences on 9/11—one of many talks he’s given both in the United States and abroad to students, emergency responders, crisis managers, and victims of terrorism. He also teaches in an HKS Executive Education course in China for officials from major cities around the country. He attended Harvard Kennedy School on the New York City Firefighters, Police, and Emergency Workers Public Service Fellowship and says that the classes he took help him every day on the job, with issues ranging from negotiating contracts to forging partnerships. “You can train people to throw water on a fire,” he says, “but to develop leadership, you have to educate people.”
His year at the Kennedy School gave him the chance to reflect on issues outside the fire department, to gain strength from fellow students and professors, and to meet leaders from around the world and learn how they deal with crisis, he says. Ten years ago, he never could have imagined having that opportunity, just as he never could have imagined that he would be in his current position. He may have changed, the world may have changed, but the reason he remains a firefighter has not: “I wanted to make a difference, to be able to reach people in their moment of greatest need. And I think that still holds true today.”
Lewis Rice is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Massachusetts.