Former FDNY commissioner: Mass notification would have helped during 9/11

Tom Von Essen, former FDNY commissioner, now a safety consultant for Honeywell’s Gamewell-FCI division, believes today’s technology could mitigate casualties
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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

NORTHFORD, Conn.—It has been more than a decade since two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, changing the lives of Americans forever, and resulting in the deaths of 2,750 people.

Could it happen again? Thanks to the evolution of situational awareness technology and mass notification systems, the mass casualties could be mitigated, Tom Von Essen said at a press conference at Honeywell Life Safety, based here.

Von Essen was the commissioner of the New York Fire Department during 9/11 and its aftermath, and a former longtime FDNY firefighter. He has since retired and is now a senior safety consultant for Honeywell’s Gamewell-FCI division. 

Von Essen was on his way to work Sept. 11, 2001, when he got a call about a “small plane” crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

He arrived at the scene in two minutes. It didn’t make sense, he said. “They said it was a small plane, but the windows are all gone. Then, I hear a loud thud over here about 15 feet away from me, I look, and it’s a person. It sounded like a car. It was that heavy,” having fallen from an upper floor of the tower, he said. 

The fire chief on the scene told him it couldn’t have been a small plane that hit the tower, and that they couldn’t get the fire out. They shut the elevators down; they knew it was a major event, a major commercial plane fire.

Then Von Essen started getting other reports. “The Sears Tower has been hit, the Mall of America hit.  … There was so much confusion,” Von Essen said.

So many reports early that day were inaccurate and accurate information wasn’t getting out to the first responders who needed to know it, he said.

“Fire departments from all over the city, from the boroughs, from all over the place, responded [to the World Trade Center], and they didn’t know anything about the buildings,” he said. 

The World Trade Center’s security plan was to contain all employees in one tower if there was a security concern in the other. After the plane hit the North Tower, employees from the South Tower were scrambling to get out. “We told them to go back upstairs,” he said. “Because that was the plan. Many of those people died after the second plane hit.”

Technology has evolved so that stakeholders should no longer be in the desperate position that he faced on 9/11, he said. 

“I’ve seen how situational awareness does and doesn’t work out in there in the field,” he said. 

“Potentially, we will have the capability for someone sitting at a [monitoring] panel to speak up, say, ‘Those planes are too close’” and to give first responders a better idea of where to go and what is needed, he said. 

After Von Essen retired, he attended a conference on mass notification. “I saw in that presentation the beginnings of what people were always asking me: Do you think anything good came out of 9/11? I always said no, because it had been for me and so many people such a horrible, horrible event. So many friends lost, the firefighters we lost.”

But when he realized the potential of mass notification systems, “this ability to expand our skills, the ability to get people information,” he changed his mind. 

“Redundancy” through numerous channels should work, he said. And, if it doesn’t, “Well, at least we tried. We did all that we could do. We owe that.”

End users should take note, he said.