Concerns over lack of FDNY helicopter

Eyewitness News Exclusive
February 4, 2009 6:14:04 PM PST
When there's a high-rise fire, the FDNY must rely on the police department 's chopper. It's an arrangement that, as Jim Hoffer found out, could be slowing down aerial response times.When there's a high-rise fire, the FDNY must rely on the police department 's chopper to get a bird's-eye-view.

It's an arrangement that, as the Eyewitness News Investigators have discovered, could be slowing down the fire department's aerial response time.

Chicago's fire department has its own helicopter, so does Los Angeles and Miami. But in the city with more skyscrappers than all those places combined, the fire department must get a ride on the police chopper to get above the scene -- something two former fire chiefs say is inherently flawed.

After the first Trade tower collapsed on 9/11, the NYPD Aviation Unit noticed the remaining tower was unstable. The pilots communicated that to police below on their own special radio frequency.

While police knew to evacuate, firefighters never got that warning from above.

Now, whenever there's a major fire or incident a specially trained FDNY battalion chief is on board one of the NYPD's seven helicopter's so he can communicate vital information to firefighters below at the scene.

"There's inherent delay there in putting that into effect," said Peter Hayden, a former chief of the department.

The former chief of the FDNY says relying on the NYPD chopper to hitch a ride to a major fire, wastes valuable time.

"When you have a significant delay like that in getting resources there that provide you with information that will assist you in making decisions, then there's a flaw in the system," Hayden said.

The flaw was clearly exposed during last summer's Con Ed steam pipe explosion.

Just before 6 o'clock in the evening, an alarm came in to the FDNY about an explosion in Midtown. At 6:01, a battalion chief was dispatched from Canarsie, Brooklyn to Floyd Bennet Field where the police aviation unit is located.

He later radioed his arrival at 6:23 and waited for the NYPD chopper. At 6:37 dispatch got word that they're still not off the ground.

Dispatch tape: "58 battalion, recon chief are at Floyd Bennett and in the process of getting airborne. 10-4"

Finally at 7:00, the chief transmits that they're airborne and five minutes from the scene.

Dispatch tape: "Battalion 58 air recon, we're airborne about 5 minutes eta."

They arrived at 7:04, one hour and three minutes after being dispatched.

"It's obviously too long," said Daniel Nigro, a former FDNY chief.

Former chief of the department Daniel Nigro says the delay underscores the need for the FDNY to have its own aviation unit.

Daniel Nigro: "A dedicated helicopter in the fire department would have been able to put somebody over the scene in quite a bit less time than that."
Jim Hoffer: "And why is that important?"
Daniel: "For surveillance number one."

When there's a high-rise fire in Chicago, firefighters are above the scene in just minutes because the department operates its own helicopters.

"The high rise buildings in the central business district lie within 8-10 minutes response time from this location," said Chief Harry Vergis of the Chicago Fire Department.

The chief of the department for the FDNY insists their reliance on the police helicopter has no impact on their response times.

Chief Salvatore Cassano: "There's no delay in response times with police department helicopters."

Remember, the FDNY dispatch tapes indicate it took more than an hour to get a chief over the scene.

Jim Hoffer: "Would an hour to respond be too long?"
Cassano: "Yes."

While two former chiefs tell us sharing a chopper with police delays aerial response, the current chief sees no need to change.

"The response we have from the police department and the audio feed, video feed with chief up in the helicopter we're very satisfied with the policy that we have in effect," Chief Cassano said.

The police department says its aviation logs show it took 50 minutes to get the fire chief above the steam pipe explosion. That's inconsistent with the chief's radio transmission that indicated it took more than an hour.