Last year, 9/11 commissioner John Lehman incensed New York
City's police and fire brass when he condemned their emergency response plans
as outrageously flawed. "I think it's a scandal," he fumed at a public hearing,
"that nobody has clear line authority for the kind of crisis we're going to
have to deal with in the years ahead." For all the indignation he whipped up,
Lehman spoke the wretched truth.
So give Mayor Michael Bloomberg credit for trying to fix the problem. He
has drawn up a protocol that - among other things - would put the New York
Police Department in charge at the scene of a chemical or biological attack.
And now, as a reward for his boldness, he has drawn the smoldering wrath of
Part of their anger no doubt stems from the epic rivalry between the FDNY
and NYPD. This sense of competition is one reason why the line of authority
when the agencies work together has been so dim for so long. Most mayors seem
to have reckoned that it was better to let the NYPD and FDNY work in parallel
universes than to set off a furor by declaring one in charge of the other.
But in the wake 9/11, Bloomberg has no such luxury. His action is welcome -
even if it's a little strange.
In truth, the fire fighters raise a credible point when they point out that
almost every other municipality on earth hands command responsibilities to the
fire department at hazardous-materials emergencies. In most locales, the fire
department will call the shots at hazmat scenes while police secure the
perimeter and tackle other ancillary chores.
So why did New York give this responsibility to the cops?
Our guess is that Bloomberg felt more comfortable with Police Commissioner
Ray Kelly in charge than with Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta in charge.
That's not a knock on Scoppetta. While the fire commissioner is a fine public
servant, he has not spent a career handling public emergencies. Kelly has been
tested repeatedly under fire - and he has usually come out on top.
True, while it may be practical in the short run to base this plan on a
personal judgment, that decision could lead to trouble over time. But it's
imperative to have a leader in place who's wily and experienced enough to make
the NYPD and FDNY work together in a crisis. Kelly would be the man to get that
done. The protocol can be changed later.