Friday, May 2, 2008

Safety: "Forced Down People's Throats"

By Elizabeth Giegerich

New York, May 2--When a plane hit One World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Greg Trevor was staring out the window at the Statue of Liberty. The impact of the airliner that crashed 20 floors above him almost knocked him to the floor and he felt the building swaying.

Because Trevor was the senior information officer for Port Authority, news stations immediately started to call him for comments about the incident. Trevor hung up on the reporters. He had a job to do: he was thoroughly trained to deal with all emergency situations and needed to put his preparation techniques into action.

“Within a few minutes, we gathered the staff, threw files and notepads into our bags, and prepared to evacuate the floor. It began to fill with grainy smoke,” Trevor wrote in his account of the tragic event later that afternoon.

Everyone on Trevor’s floor, the 68th, got out of the World Trade Center alive that day. “I know people that were on the 65th, 72nd, 73rd, all different floors where they had to get some people stuck in elevators on their floor out first before they started to evacuate,” Trevor remembered during an interview seven years later.

“People in wheel chairs were carried down and people who were visually impaired made it out too. A lot of people knew what they needed to do and they got out safely.”

The people who “knew what they needed to do,” were those who had been trained or were led by people like Trevor who had regularly participated in training exercises, classes, and emergency drills.

One month prior to 9/11 Trevor had participated in a table top exercise – a hypothetical situation was given to him and other company appointed fire marshals on his floor, and they were to talk through each step required to ensure every employee’s safety and well being. That exercise had nothing to do with a terrorist attack, but past table top exercises he’d participated in contributed to saving Trevor and thousands of others the day the planes destroyed the twin towers.

As dull as “emergency preparedness” may sound, and as irksome a fire drill can be on a typical work day, people who are well prepared for emergencies have a better chance of making it out alive on tragic days like 9/11, or out of any unexpected dangerous situation.

Sadly, there were thousands who lost their lives on 9/11, whether they were well-trained or not, but New York City realized that regular citizens were well-trained heroes that day. Many survived because they or their leaders were prepared for something as unexpected and catastrophic as a fatal terrorist attack.

In 2004, in response to 9/11, New York State enacted a law called local law 26 (L.L.26) which requires all high rise buildings to institute Emergency Action Plans (EAPs). EAPs are detailed response plans for any type of emergency besides a fire (fire safety plans have been in effect for decades). Terrorist attacks, chemical spills, threats to air quality, and natural disasters, are a few examples of emergencies covered under L.L.26.

Of the approximately 1,800 buildings in the city that now require EAPs, about 900 have filed their plans with the New York Fire Department, but only about 370 have been accepted by the department, according to an official from the bureau of fire prevention who wished to remain anonymous.

The reasons for a rather low number of accepted EAPs vary; law makers and building owners hope that EAPs will never have to be used, so the time and money spent on their implementations is hard for some buildings to commit to. EAPs are inherently difficult to create so building owners and managers often turn to expensive outside consultants to help with plans, which raises costs. The fire official from the bureau of fire prevention said that EAPs created by outside consultants are often the best submitted to FDNY. However, the fire department has rejected many, some created by private consultants, and some created by building managers themselves. Buildings that require, but have failed to create an EAP, will eventually be issued a violation and probably be fined “a couple hundred dollars or so,” said the fire official. But the cost of creating an EAP is much higher.

“There was a huge paradigm shift after 9/11,” said Ira Tenebaum, coordinator of the public private initiative at the New York Office of Emergency Management. “It changed the way anyone looked at emergency management (and they realized) staff and personnel was more important than computers and information.”

Some building owners and managers seem to have come to this realization, but most have not; most just comply with the law and do not take any further precautions to ensure their tenants safety, according to experts in the emergency preparedness field.

“No one wants to make an investment in safety, they only want to do the minimum safety requirements, because it is not something that they make a priority of unfortunately,” said Evan Lipstein, president of Hyline Safety, an emergency preparedness consultant company. “EAPs are forced down people’s throats,” said Lipstein. “Otherwise they don’t give a rat’s ass about safety, they just care about putting money in their pockets.”

Bob Pecora of Quality Fire, an emergency consultant company, said most of the buildings that use Quality “stick to the minimum requirements, because of the cost factor.” But he added that some of the bigger properties, like Boston Properties, have asked for additional training. “I guess they are concerned for safety. They have a lot of large properties in NYC and they asked for extra seminars, extra drills.”

Depending on a building’s size, the number of people who are involved with training varies. EAP and fire safety laws require each floor to have a fire marshal who communicates with the fire (and now EAP) director, who is most familiar with the building, and often also the security guard.

The safety directors receive 20 hours of training, and three tests; two written tests and one “on-site” test. During the on-site test, the fire department goes to a site and tests the fire safety director by creating an emergency scenario in which the director will need to prove his or her knowledge of the building and the correct steps that will need to be taken to ensure the tenants’ safety. Their job is critical: They are the liaison between the fire department and the people in the building.

“I am responsible for any alarm activations, plus I’m familiar with the building, first responders are not,” said Ray Rosario, a fire safety director who has been in the business for 27 years. “I know where the stairwells are and what kind of facilities we have, how to use elevators in fire recall, how to evacuate handicapped people. But people do not take fire drills seriously,” he said. “It’s frustrating because we will have a drill and they don’t want to get up and do it.”

Fire fighter Joe Cunningham leads a fire safety director certification course twice a week for Hyline to teach future directors everything they need to know to pass the tests and discuss how best to deal with tenants who are reluctant to take orders. On one recent Thursday night his students patiently sat through a four hour class, occasionally murmuring complaints about how people fail to perform their daily duties as fire marshals, like signing in at the front desk everyday.

Despite their complaints about others who do not take safety seriously, the class of mostly building personnel were quick to proclaim how importantly they view their ability to deal with emergencies, and general safety.

“This ain’t no joke,” said Ernesto Baez, 44. “This is people’s lives.”

Elizabeth Giegerich, a graduate student at New York University, focuses on metro reporting, and has covered political, environmental and community issues. An intern at the New York Daily News, she’s also written for Voice of America and ACORN’s Social Policy Magazine.

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