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Retired FDNY Assistant Chief Joseph Pfeifer named first deputy commissioner

Pfeifer will manage day-to-day operations; the retired chief is known for his work in counterterrorism and disaster preparedness


Then-Assistant Chief Joseph Pfeifer and Gov. Andrew Cuomo walked through the Breezy Point, Queens neighborhood, which was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Photo/Julia Xanthos/Tribune News Service

By Thomas Tracy
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — A retired FDNY 9/11 hero was tapped as Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh’s second in command Saturday.

As the department’s First Deputy Commissioner, retired Assistant Chief Joseph Pfeifer, 67, will hold the second-highest civilian rank in the FDNY, the department said.

The appointment will undoubtedly tamp down criticisms by department staff chiefs that Kavanagh — the city’s first woman fire commissioner doesn’t include them in her staff moves and makes decisions for the department with a tight circle of aides with little or no firefighting experience.

Yet Kavanagh’s critics call Pfeifer’s appointment nothing more than “window dressing” as staff chiefs continue to prepare a mass exodus from FDNY headquarters next month.

Pfeifer, who retired in 2018, “served as one of New York City’s Bravest for decades,” Kavanagh said in a statement. “(He) created partnerships and programs that enhanced the safety and training of our members, and has always been there for our city, especially on our darkest days.

“Having already worked closely with Joe for many years, I am thrilled he has returned home to the FDNY and joined our executive leadership team,” she said.

Mayor Adams hailed the hire on Saturday, claiming Pfeifer “embodies what it means to be New York’s Bravest.”

Pfeifer joined the fire department in 1981 and was the first FDNY chief to respond to the World Trade Center on 9/11. His brother, FDNY Lt. Kevin Pfeifer, died in the terror attack.

The retired chief has been credited with founding the department’s Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness. He was also the FDNY’s chief of Counterterrorism and Emergency Preparedness for 17 years after 9/11, where he helped shape strategic planning, intelligence sharing and interagency response to terror related incidents, department officials said.

“With nearly 40-years of experience with the FDNY, he is an excellent choice to assume one of the highest-ranking positions in this great department and is someone that New Yorkers and firefighters can count on to innovate in all aspects of fire prevention and safety,” Mayor Adams said.

Kavanagh was the FDNY’s first deputy fire commissioner under former Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro. When she became acting fire commissioner after Nigro retired last year, Lizette Christoff, the department’s deputy commissioner of budget and finance, was made acting first deputy fire commissioner.

No one has taken on the position full time since Kavanagh was promoted, FDNY officials said.

Since he retired, Pfeifer has been an adjunct associate professor in Columbia University’s School of International Public Affairs and the director of crisis leadership at the Columbia Climate School’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness.

The retired chief said he is looking forward to his new challenge.

“The heart of FDNY is the ability to unify efforts to solve complex problems in the face of great tragedy,” Pfeifer said. “Our united team is a sign of resilience to reflect on the past and envision the future so that we can enhance the present.”

As of Friday, at least six staff chiefs, including Chief of Department John “Jack” Hodgens, the most senior uniformed official in the FDNY, have asked to be demoted to deputy chief and be moved back to the field, claiming that there’s been a complete breakdown of communication between Kavanagh and the FDNY’s highest uniformed ranks. The chiefs are asking to be moved into their new roles by March 6.

Hodgens and the other chiefs asked to be reassigned after Kavanagh demoted Assistant Chiefs Fred Schaaf, Michael Gala and Joseph Jardin to deputy chief, and then called other top chiefs on the carpet in a closed door Feb. 3 meeting where she demanded more out of the box thinking and fewer inquiries about vacation rollovers and personal cars.

“The lack of transparency and the lack of truthfulness, not only with me but with the entire Uniformed Executive Staff, has brought me to this decision,” Deputy Assistant Chief Michael Massucci wrote this week as he asked to be booted back to deputy chief.

A high-ranking FDNY source with knowledge of the ongoing turmoil didn’t believe Pfeifer could bring the outraged staff chiefs back into the fold.

“He has a bit of history with the fire department and has some gravitas, but some are angry he took the job,” the source said about Pfeifer. “He’s going to bring some credibility to Kavanagh when the other chiefs leave, but that’s about it.”

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