September 11, 2001, has been infinitely covered. Due to terrorist motivated suicide hijackings via aircraft, 2,750 people died in New York City, along with184 people at the Pentagon, and 40 people on a plane crash in Pennsylvania.
This article explores changes across many fire safety and rescue agencies (public and private). Are we safer or better prepared today?
Codes and proactive planning
From a preparation standpoint, in the US, a better-prepared group is the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), founded in 1896. The goal of the NFPA is to create safety code standards that 10,000+ members follow. Their objective is building codes, procedures, and planning for urban fires and emergencies. Their work includes pre-incident planning and assessing target hazards within high rises.
According to Otto Drozd III, Executive Secretary of NFPA and lifelong fire chief (retired), there were several communication issues when 9/11 occurred. He cited the problems with communication throughout the high-rise buildings via a Distributed Antenna System (DAS).
He said that these systems were non-existent or non-functioning in dense structures. They are required today in high-rise structures. He also noted that today much more goes on within the NFPA, fire districts, and municipalities to proactively work with building owners and managers to plan an event.
When planning, they ask questions about. “The apparatus, personnel, tasks to be accomplished, how many people to send, i.e., how man-power intensive?” he said. Drozd was the fire chief on site during the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, where an active shooter killed 49 people.
He said today’s planning work is communication and systems intensive. NFPA has developed over 300 codes to cover everything from urban fires to terrorist attacks and active shooter scenarios. Codes are adopted by states and municipalities that indicate both equipment and rescue personnel needed for the event.
Regarding firefighting, Drozd said: “There are three main objectives, life safety, fire extinguishing, and property conservation." He added that in a high-rise situation, like that of 9/11 at the World Trade Center, rescuers must conduct an aggressive interior attack. “We do search and rescue and evacuation – but the goal is to extinguish the fire as quickly as possible,” he said.
NFPA data shows that, in the US between 2005-2009, there were 15,700 reported structure fires in high-rise buildings. Between 2014-2018, there were 13,400 high-rise fires reported annually.
Drozd said: “While relative to the overall number of fires, it is a low frequency, but a high consequence event. Because you can have an entire city block in a high rise, (there is) much greater intensity to residents and fire fighters. What are the high-risk populations – elderly, those with disabilities…” He said emergency management keeps lists of people with disabilities included in the pre-incident plans. He added: “Regarding a hospital, for example, we know there are people who can’t move. Planning indicates that additional resources may be sent.”
When egress is blocked, those trapped above a fire area must go to the top of the building to evacuate. He said that's when helicopters and hoists are required
Helicopters and add-on equipment
Evacuation from a high-rise building can take some doing, said Drozd. He illustrated: “When people have to evacuate up, they will evacuate to the roof level, and then – in helicopter operations – hoists lift residents or tenants off the building. But first, they (search and rescue) check that the building is stable. If the building integrity is there, they will recommend people shelter in place until the evacuation. Once extinguished, you can walk people down." When egress is blocked, those trapped above a fire area must go to the top of the building to evacuate. He said that's when helicopters and hoists are required.
Each of the two World Trade Center buildings in the 9/11 attacks were about 1,300 feet tall.
One way to mitigate damage and safety in a high-rise building is by shooting water onto the fire from the outside. Erickson Incorporated’s water cannon, improved from an earlier version for use on the S-64 Air Crane Helicopter, should be ready for installation on the trademark orange helicopters in 2023.
At the 2022 Heli-Expo conference, Erickson announced the next generation water cannon. According to the press release, ‘it is a complete overhaul from the earlier water cannon and is significantly more capable than anything else in today’s aerial firefighting market, ultimately allowing crews to put more water on hard-to-reach fires than ever before’. Whether in high-rise fires, or an urban attack where a fire is present, the S-64 Air Crane Helicopter with the water cannon may be a good solution.
Software-based mapping, DVE training, and night vision
Intterra, software-as-a-service (SaaS) company serving departments across the US, believes that mapping in an urban environment has significantly changed since the 9/11 attacks of 2001. For one thing, while computers were evolving, functional and valuable software was elementary.
Robert Edson, Chief Sales and Marketing Officer for Intterra Group, has been with the company for four years. He said what he appreciates about their product is that it is ‘real’. He added: “What I mean by that is that it’s used daily by departments of all sizes to meet their mission — daily operations, large scale all-hazards response, accreditation, or whatever challenges the department is facing.”
What Intterra offers is a ‘decision support engine for the fire service’ according to Edson. He said that the software addresses the need for everything from pre-planning, real-time situational awareness and operations, large-scale incident management, and reporting and analytics.
“Our tools are the primary operational tool for wildfire in the US, and the premier tool for viewing aircraft, satellite, and other remote sensing intelligence as well,” Edson said.
In addition to using the software, Intterra offers trusted expertise and advice to departments, which he said, ‘is the right thing to do’.
One practical way to use the software is through a partnership with Erickson. He said: “Our core aerial toolsets involve both an incident commander and ’ground troop’ level views of real data like real-time aircraft video, fire perimeters, camera feeds, and other information that used to take hours or sometimes days to get back.
Intterra airborne tools are used on nearly every major wildfire in the US to view those assets. “In partnership with Erickson, Inc., we developed a way for pilots to take that same information into the cockpit, revolutionizing the world of aerial firefighting. When pilots take off, they can download the most current data from the fire line and access it in their electronic flight bag.”
There is much more understanding about the differences between different human body systems like visual and vestibular systems and how they affect pilots flying through degraded visual environments (DVE)
But, according to Edson, even with robust software and mapping, a threat still exists: “One of the biggest threats to the urban environment is the lack of data sharing capabilities and interoperability of systems. Precious minutes are lost when data is throttled or stuck in an inaccessible system or cannot be viewed in context with other critical intelligence sources.” Thus, communication across agencies and supporting companies is still a significant hindrance, even after 21 years.
However, in aerial firefighting scenarios, even in urban settings, a new tool is available for better pilot training. There is much more understanding about the differences between different human body systems like visual and vestibular systems and how they affect pilots flying through degraded visual environments (DVE).
DVE can include fire, smoke, low clouds, and other environmental factors. ATS Systems, LLC created the ATS Device, a wearable product for pilot training. If helicopter pilots train with the ATS Device, they can prepare for an emergent event in an urban environment.
This ATS Device system pairs with night vision goggles (NVGs), which allows the pilot to see better when bringing people up via hoist in a rescue. According to ASU’s VP of Aviation Operations, Kip McDermott, a lot of the work in urban recovery is the same as it was 21 years ago – hoist work, pulling people up, and working with firefighters on a building.
He said that night vision goggles have improved by adding white phosphor for clarity and improved acuity. He said rescue equipment is also more stable, and hover dynamics over level terrain are a function of the radar altimeter. But, NVGs, he said, ‘are not X-ray, we can’t see through the building, but they amplify light’.
Rescue vehicles and improved safety equipment
Paul Gottwig, Senior Pilot, Air Operations with Los Angeles County Fire Department, said that after 9/11/2001, various changes occurred. For one, he said that helipads are much more common in urban environments. For buildings three-to-four stories high, ‘we’ve learned how to pull people from a rooftop instead of having them go down’. The contingent for this being building stability: “We can hover or touch the ground lightly to take them off.”
Their department flies Bell 412 helicopters, which hold eight people in a rescue, and S-70 Blackhawks, which hold 14 people.
Ultimately, he said the most important decision regarding rooftop evacuations by hoist and helicopter is crowd control. He said if you have 150 people on top of the building, you don’t want them rushing the aircraft at once. So, there is personnel in the building organizing the order of the evacuation.
Many missions could now continue through the night, and like ASU, he said NVGs have been around a long time, but the introduction of white phosphor is ‘a mission enhancer for night operations’. He added that ‘night snorkeling can now happen with NVGs; we can get from the dip site to the fire faster’.
One of the most significant changes, Gottwig said, is the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) technologies in the urban environment, which he said, ‘has been a force multiplier because it gives us a good representation of what’s around us’. He noted that all aircraft now have ADS-B instead of transponders. Plus, that the safety equipment, especially in water rescues, has been dramatically improved.
Gottwig stated that many agencies work together to coordinate efforts, adding that each agency uses a different radio frequency, which must be coordinated within each group: “It doesn't impede (the rescue) but can add to the workload for certain agencies.”
The impact of 9/11/2001 was tremendous and unfortunately both domestic and international terrorism is still a threat. In some cases, newer safety, rescue equipment and vehicles are available. And software and data intelligence have greatly improved over 21 years.
According to experts, event pre-planning with an understanding of building schematics, residential and office occupation, and hinderances to exit, are important. Future preparedness can be achieved through partnerships between government agencies and companies. Planning regarding equipment, communications, software, and mapping is key. Plus, improved training and planning have benefited firefighting and related agencies.