‘A command structure was emerging from the rubble’: Incident command on 9/11 and beyond

The Ground Zero operation led to advances in incident management that continue to evolve for today’s complex and extreme events


This article is adapted from “Ordinary Heroes: A Memoir of 9/11” by Joseph Pfeifer in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC © Joseph Pfeifer, 2021. Through Chief Pfeifer’s eyes, we see the horror of the attacks and the courage of the firefighters who ran into the burning towers to save others. We walk with him and his fellow firefighters through weeks of rescue efforts and months of numbing grief as they wrestle with the real meaning of heroism and leadership. Learn more and order "Ordinary Heroes" here. 

By Joseph Pfeifer

On the anniversary of 9/11, firefighters worldwide stand at attention and render a respectful salute. We pause to remember each significant moment when terrorists used four commercial airlines as missiles, and the ensuing collapse of both 110-story World Trade Center (WTC) towers.

For me, each anniversary brings me back to the WTC site, where reflective pools represent the Twin Towers’ footprints, with the names engraved of all the victims. I solemnly stand in my dress uniform, recalling what I was doing that fateful day and the many faces of first responders who reported to me in the North Tower.

With FDNY senior command chiefs killed in the collapse, and the next in line injured, I wondered, “How do we build a command structure for such unthinkable destruction?”
With FDNY senior command chiefs killed in the collapse, and the next in line injured, I wondered, “How do we build a command structure for such unthinkable destruction?” (AP Photo/Graham Morrison)

Memories from the day

That morning I could not imagine that responding to an odor of gas in the streets of lower Manhattan would be the last time anything would resemble routine.

At 8:46 a.m., I heard the roar of jet engines and watched a passenger plane intentionally crash into the North Tower. As the plane disintegrated inside the building, a massive fireball erupted, followed by an unforgettable boom.

Firefighters jumped on their rigs as I ordered them “to go to the Trade Center.” We were going to the largest and most dangerous fire of our lives with 20,000 people in desperate need.

I picked up the radio and told the dispatcher, “We just had a plane crashed into the upper floors of the World Trade Center. Transmit a second alarm and start relocating companies into the area.”

From years of experience, I knew I had to give a concise report. But knowing that I would be the first chief to take command at the scene, dozens of thoughts were streaming through my head. I had to slow my thinking and create a “deliberate calm” to consider what I needed to do next to take command of the largest fire in FDNY history.

In about 60 seconds, I radioed dispatch again and said, “We have a number of floors on fire. It looked like the plane was aiming for the building. Transmit a third alarm.” I then gave specific instructions on what I wanted these units to do. Key to my decision-making during the initial shock of this extreme event was to take a moment to think and frame the incident. In my message, I was telling units that this was not an accident but a terrorist attack.

What I did not understand at that moment was how the situation would continue to evolve over those 102 minutes, including a second plane smashing into the WTC, this time the South Tower.

Later, in the middle of our rescue and evacuation efforts, we heard inconceivable loud rumbling sounds. In seconds, the lobby of the North Tower went completely black. Without knowing that the South Tower collapsed, I quickly ordered all units to evacuate the North Tower, which collapsed 29 minutes later.

Having barely survived, we stood at the edge of the rubble pile with our fire helmets and gear covered in thick gray dust. The death toll was too much to imagine. Our senior command chiefs were killed, and the next in line were injured. I wondered, “How do we build a command structure for such unthinkable destruction?”

Little by little, deputy chiefs began to take command as those of us who survived, responding units and off-duty firefighters gathered on the pile of twisted steel and crumbled concrete.

From the top of a burnt fire truck, a chief asked for a moment of silence for the many lives lost. From this moment of crisis empathy, he re-established command.

Other chiefs took command of each of the four distinct physical sectors caused by the collapse. Many of us recognized the voices of these chiefs and trusted in their leadership. A command structure was emerging from the rubble. It was not a pretty org-chart, but there were people to rescue, voids to search, and fires to extinguish. The unthinkable was our command challenge.

The WTC four-quadrant sector map for command and control.
The WTC four-quadrant sector map for command and control.

Evolving command

Over the next week, we established an incident command post at the quarters of Engine 10 and Ladder 10, which was located directly across the street from the South Tower. While the building was damaged, it was still intact. We followed the Incident Command System and formally assigned chiefs to the command and section positions.

I became the Planning Chief. One daunting task was to make sure there was situational awareness about the 16-acre collapse area. Our Geographical Information System (GIS) Unit provided a one-page grid map of the site, dividing it into four quadrants with the footprints of where the buildings once stood. We gave this map to every agency working at what would become known as Ground Zero.

A week later, we moved the command post a half-dozen blocks away to a large three-story firehouse on Duane Street, my firehouse. Half of the firehouse quartered Engine 7, Ladder 1 and Battalion 1. The other half was now the WTC command post with the apparatus floor as a huge interagency meeting space and the second floor for the command and section chiefs.

Coordinated efforts, IMTs and support

According to New York City executive orders, FDNY would be the incident commander at a collapse. We had to coordinate operations among FDNY, NYPD, the Medical Examiner, National Guard, USAR teams, FEMA, construction companies and many other organizations.

I needed help in my expanding role as Planning Chief – and I got it. One day, standing in front of the firehouse, I got an unexpected visit from the Southwest Incident Management Team (IMT) that came to New York City to assist us. The IMT’s Planning Chief came up to me and said, “Chief, I am from the Forestry’s IMT, and I am here to help you.” I looked at him and silently wondered: “You’re from the Forestry? The WTC has only one surviving tree. How can you help?” I’m sure my skepticism was obvious. How could managing wildfires translate to an urban disaster?

He went on to say, “Chief, I know how hard you have been working, and it looks like you can use some help. I can assist you in putting together an Incident Action Plan (IAP) and manage the other planning functions. We’re not going to take over anything.” He convinced me with his knowledge and empathy. I quickly put the Southwest IMT to work on the third floor of our command post and wrote the first WTC-IAP with their assistance.

The IAP accomplishes three critical aspects of incident command:

  1. Shared situational awareness
  2. Resource management
  3. Operational diversity and inclusion.

Ground Zero was a hazardous site with potential further collapse, open holes, burning fires, toxic dust, and the operation of 27 cranes. The priority was the safety of all working at the site. We coordinated the efforts of diverse groups of responders through daily interagency meetings and Incident Action Plans, which made everyone feel included. We exchanged vital information about search and rescue. By doing so, we discovered the need to remove millions of dollars’ worth of silver hidden in a void below and to drive steel rods into bedrock to reinforce walls that held back water from the Hudson River.

One outcome of 9/11 was the creation of the FDNY Emergency Operations Centers to manage large-scale events.
One outcome of 9/11 was the creation of the FDNY Emergency Operations Centers to manage large-scale events. (Photo/FDNY)

Improving future responses

The IMTs from the Southwest, and later Pacific Northwest and Alaska, were as indispensable as the USAR teams brought in to assist FDNY in managing this disaster, which claimed the lives of 2,753 people, including 343 members of FDNY. We valued the IMTs as an essential element of command. In our After-Action Review (AAR) conducted by McKinsey & Company, I made sure that one of the recommendations was to create an “Urban IMT.” We later developed an FDNY IMT and utilized them at many major events, from Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy to COVID-19 response and vaccinations.

The five Ps of Network Incident Management: Crisis leaders need to connect to a portfolio of EOCs for collaboration and coordination in real-time. This requires a shared platform for Network Incident Management in addition to any in-person meetings.
The five Ps of Network Incident Management: Crisis leaders need to connect to a portfolio of EOCs for collaboration and coordination in real-time. This requires a shared platform for Network Incident Management in addition to any in-person meetings.

Another outcome of 9/11 was the creation of the FDNY Emergency Operations Centers (EOC) to manage large-scale events. EOCs are also at the federal, state, local, tribal and territory levels. Even the private sector, like financial institutions and hospitals, sees a need for an EOC to manage crises from cyberattacks to pandemics. Crisis leaders need to connect to a portfolio of EOCs for collaboration and coordination in real-time. This requires a shared platform for Network Incident Management in addition to any in-person meetings.

The 20th anniversary of 9/11, coupled with the ongoing challenges of COVID-19, provide us with an opportunity to reflect on the past so we can imagine a better command system to deal with future extreme events. NIMS, IMTs and EOCs are integral parts of taking command. Proficiency in incident management depends on highly skilled people.

Virtual IMT, the third generation of IMTs

The evolution of IMTs has expanded the original concept of wildfire IMT to post-9/11 Urban IMT and, more recently, to Virtual IMT for COVID response. This third generation of IMTs will be composed of a specially trained IMT that will operate in a virtual world. Its members will have experience and knowledge in the National Incident Management System (NIMS), online platforms such as Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN), state platforms like NY-Responds, as well as GIS and other incident management programs. The vision is for each state or regional area to form a Virtual IMT that can be deployed online to support EOCs and the Incident Command Post (ICP) in a broad range of incidents.

Often local EOCs do not have the surge capacity to manage extreme events or sufficient personal to sustain incident management for a prolonged period. Adding to the problem is the lack of competency in sophisticated and rarely used computer programs. The Virtual IMT or “geek squad” will gather information through voice, video and data from critical sectors to form situational awareness reports, resource tracking, operational IAPs, logistical requests and administration tasks. Lengthy plans will be condensed into digital dashboards for decision-makers. Collaboration and coordination would take place online, which we have seen with COVID. Like the traditional IMT, Virtual IMT members will support incident management.

Imagine the early days of the pandemic and how valuable it would have been for hospitals to be networked for the availability of ICU beds, PPE, ventilators and staffing. A digital platform and a Virtual IMT could be a game-changer for coordinating efforts across public and private sectors.

Each anniversary brings me back to the WTC site, where reflective pools represent the Twin Towers’ footprints, with the names engraved of all the victims.
Each anniversary brings me back to the WTC site, where reflective pools represent the Twin Towers’ footprints, with the names engraved of all the victims. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The key: Working together

Today, we look to a new generation of crisis leaders to inspire us to unify efforts to solve complex problems in the face of great tragedy, whether terrorism, violent extremism, climate change, natural disaster, pandemics, cyberattacks, industrial accidents or other significant events. Only by working together as we did after 9/11 can we develop the tools and skills for commanding at the next extreme event.

About the Author

FDNY Assistant Chief Joseph W. Pfeifer was the first chief at the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001. After 9/11, Chief Pfeifer worked as a strategic leader assessing the Department’s response performance, identified new budget and policy priorities, helped overhaul management practices, created partnerships to supplement the Department’s existing competencies with new expertise, shaped new technologies for emergency response and developed the FDNY’s first Strategic Plan, Terrorism Preparedness Strategy, and Continuity of Operations Plan. Pfeifer was the founding director of the FDNY’s Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness, and ultimately retired from the department as the Chief of Counterterrorism and Emergency Preparedness. He is a Senior Fellow for Crisis Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Pfeifer is also the Director of Crisis Leadership at Columbia University.

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2022 FireRescue1. All rights reserved.