Adaptive Resilience Emerges From 9/11 and the 15-Years Following

Chief Pfeifer was the first chief on the scene at the World Trade Center during the 9/11 attacks.

At 0846 on September 11, 2001, I was standing in the street at a gas leak in lower Manhattan when I heard the loud roar of jet engines.  I looked up and watched a commercial airliner aim and crash into the World Trade Center (WTC).  In that single instant, our lives were changed.  What we did not understand at that moment was the trauma we were about to go though over the next 102-minutes.  As we began to establish our command we heard a second plane traveling at high speed crash into the South Tower; other planes would later be crashed into the Pentagon and near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  The world watched in disbelief, as twenty thousand people were in their greatest moment of need.

The New York City Fire Department (FDNY) launched an unprecedented effort to evacuate the buildings and rescue those who could not get out.  Hundreds of firefighters and rescuers rushed to the skyscrapers in the hope of saving those who were trapped above the flames and encouraging others to evacuate.  But at 09:59, the unimaginable happened.  The WTC South Tower, a 110 story high-rise building, collapsed.  We quickly ordered all units to evacuate the North Tower, but time was running out and at 10:28 the North Tower, another 110 story building, collapsed to the ground.  In the dusty rubble of the World Trade Center, we lost 343 firefighters, 37 Port Authority police officers, 23 NYPD police officers and 2,203 WTC workers and visitors.  That day 2,996 people died in four attacks at three different locations.

With the memories of 9/11, how does FDNY or any organization bounce back from such devastation?  What does it take to be resilient enough to initiate organizational change and adapt to a new threat environment? Adaptive Resilience is a process by which organizations demonstrate flexibility to adjust their core mission to a new operational reality.  There are five necessary components of adaptive resilience: (1) analyze crisis response facts and narratives, (2) honor the heroes by connecting to others, (3) enhance core competencies and information sharing, (4) ensure organizational flexibility and surge capacity to adapt to novelty, and (5) anticipate tomorrow’s response.  Over the past 15 years, FDNY utilized adaptive resilience to redefine its organizational purpose and operations.

Analyze Crisis Response

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in early 2002, newly elected Mayor Michael Bloomberg and appointed Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta and FDNY Chief of Department Daniel Nigro asked the consulting firm McKinsey & Company to study the events that took place during the 9/11 attacks on the WTC.  The study included recommendations regarding how the Fire Department could increase its preparedness for the future—a future that included the potential for terrorist attacks.  The thrust of this project was to look at the facts and search for new ways to operate in a world that was changed radically by the events of 9/11.

The McKinsey team and the FDNY Chiefs interviewed hundreds of FDNY personnel, reviewed endless hours of video and audio communications and spoke to more than 100 experts around the country and abroad, including members of various fire departments, emergency agencies, technology researchers, and the military.  A key first step to resiliency is allowing first responders to share their narrative of what they did.  This gives individuals a chance to comprehend what happened and provides an opportunity for organizational learning.  On August 19, 2002, the results of thousands of hours of work were published by McKinsey & Co.

The report is a two-part document.  Part 1 examines the FDNY response on September 11th and Part 2 outlines recommendations to improve planning and management, increase operational preparedness, improve communication and technology capabilities, and enhance family and support services.  It was clear from the McKinsey report that FDNY could no longer operate with a pre-9-11 mindset.  This honest and in-depth analysis laid the foundation for FDNY to spend more than a decade enhancing preparedness.  Without understanding industry best practices and their operational gaps, organizations will find it difficult to change.  Bringing in an outside consulting firm not only gave the report credibility, but it also allowed the Fire Department to create a sense of urgency to attain funding and make changes.

Honor the Heroes

In the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks, FDNY attended endless memorials and funerals.  It was a time for firefighters, emergency medical technicians, paramedics and fire marshals to support each other in mourning family members and colleagues who were killed.  When experiencing a crisis our brain produces oxytocin — a neurological hormone that makes us crave support from others.  The effects of this were observed in firehouses as firefighters supported each other and even without saying a word, one had the sense that others knew what one was feeling.  This stress response of connecting to others is an essential part of becoming resilient.  However, after the first anniversary of 9/11 and attending hundreds of funerals, the department and the city, and indeed the entire nation, needed to say a final goodbye.

On October 12, 2002, FDNY assembled with the families of those members lost in the line of duty for a closing memorial service at Madison Square Garden.  With 19,000 people inside, tens of thousands in the rain outside and many more watching on TV, we stood arm-in-arm to shed a tear.  Towards the end of the memorial service, Former Mayor Giuliani asked the crowd to applaud the heroes who made the supreme sacrifice.  The crowd responded with thunderous clapping that lasted over 10 minutes.  It was a catharsis of emotions, which marked the beginning of the healing process.  Organizations need these kinds of rituals to bring people together to recognize collective grief and to start the healing.  Without such an occasion there is danger of being stuck in the sadness of the event.  It also provides leaders with an opportunity to unify their organization and catapult it forward to meet new challenges.

Enhance Core Competencies

9/11 was a violent crime against humanity that killed thousands of people from 90 different countries.  FDNY was one of its victims.  Like many crime victims, we were not only affected by the physical injuries, but also by the psychological loss of control.  In the dust of WTC, we made a collective decision to regain control so we could move beyond being just victims of terrorism.  What emerged was the willingness to embrace experiential learning to drive forward organizational change.  The more we took control of our future, the more resilient we became as an agency.

FDNY created a $17 million Fire Department Operations Center (FDOC).  This state-of-the-art command center gathers citywide situational awareness information and shares it with the field units as well as across agencies by voice, video, and data.  While centralized command provides greater situational awareness, FDNY knew that decentralized management of incidents is equally important, which led them to appoint Borough Commanders in each of NYC’s five boroughs.  If there are simultaneous incidents in multiple boroughs, FDOC acts as Area Command while Borough Commanders serve as separate Incident Commanders for the boroughs.  In addition, FDNY developed an Incident Management Team (IMT) to assist in managing major incidents.  This incident management structure was put to the test successfully during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

To ensure adequate response and distribution of resources, FDNY also created a Tiered Response System that divides response tasks into layered groupings with each subsequent layer containing resources trained incrementally to a higher response capability.  Thus, a tiered response model is shaped as a triangle; where many more people are trained with basic-level skills and provide support for those with specialized skills allowing the organization to boost overall capacity.  This model was applied across the department for structural collapse search and rescue, hazardous material mitigation, marine (water rescue) operations, and emergency medical response.

Unique to FDNY is the creation of a Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness (CTDP) to inform, educate and prepare fire and emergency medical services (EMS) personnel for terrorism, natural disasters and other large-scale events.  Using uniform staff, who have graduated from the master’s degree program at the Naval Postgraduate School’s (NPS) Center for Homeland Defense and Security, CTDP develops preparedness strategies and emergency response and continuity of operation plans, conducts intelligence analysis, and produces the Watchline — a weekly unclassified Intel product that reaches 100,000 people weekly.  Additionally, the CTDP prepares the department to mitigate weapons of mass destruction (WMD) attacks, designs tabletop and full scale exercises, develops innovative technologies for command functions, and conducts executive Counterterrorism Leadership Programs (CLP) with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point to educate personnel about terrorism.

FDNY has a secure room for classified Intel and holds secure video conferences with other fire departments, law enforcement, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the New York State Fusion Center.  CTDP also has a captain who after his year-long fellowship at the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) is part of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF).

CTDP’s educational mission also includes teaming with HBO to organize screenings of documentaries (Terror in Mumbai, Westgate and Charlie Hebdo) and panel discussions for CLP and NPS/CHDS alumni.  The Center also reaches out to coordinate with other cities and agencies, for example: collaboration with London for the 2012 Olympics; holding special trainings for NYPD, the FBI and State Department; interviewing responders from the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings; and leading an interdisciplinary team to Paris to understand the 2015 attacks.  These multi-level approaches to preparedness allow FDNY to imagine and prepare for the unimaginable.

After years of preparedness, organizational restructuring and partnering with other agencies, one should ask if adaptive resilience really works.  On January 15, 2009, when US Airways Flight 1549 made an emergency landing on the icy cold waters of the Hudson River, FDNY found out the answer to this question.  The response flotilla of FDNY fireboats, NY Waterways Ferry, U.S. Coast Guard and NYPD boats converged on the floating plane and rescued the passengers and crew.

FDNY acquired the plane’s manifest from LaGuardia Airport while recording everyone who passed through emergency medical screening and area hospitals.  By comparing the two lists in the FDOC, FDNY was the first agency to know that all 155 people on the plane were saved.  This information was immediately posted on the Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN), which prompted a call from DHS Under Secretary of Intelligence & Analysis Charlie Allen, who asked if the information was correct.  I was able to reply in the affirmative with certainty, and he responded that he would notify then DHS Secretary Napolitano who would notify the White House.

Ensure Organizational Flexibility

The FDNY system-wide tiered response was flexible enough to adapt to the unexpected Ebola event of October 23, 2014.  Craig Spenser, a doctor working with Doctors Without Borders, had been treating Ebola patients in West Africa.  Upon his return to the U.S., he became ill with Ebola and had to be rushed by ambulance to Bellevue Hospital in New York City.  Multiple organizations mobilized by deploying a version of the tiered response system for patient care and disease mitigation.  FDNY dispatched a HazMat Chief, HazMat ambulances and HazMat tech units to the doctor’s residence and used personal protective equipment originally bought for chemical terrorism to transport the patient by ambulance to the hospital.  The patient was handed off to the hospital staff in bio protective gear, and within a short period of time, he was receiving treatment that saved his life.

The system-wide tiered response contained a potentially deadly epidemic, and proper decontamination procedures ensured the safety of all emergency responders.  The structure of the response allowed seamless adaptation between first responders and hospitals.  This Ebola case demonstrated the flexibility and surge capacity of the tiered response system to leverage core competencies and adapt to novelty. FDNY’s ability to adapt to a new situation and work with hospitals, Departments of Health and the Center for Disease Control instilled confidence in the government’s ability to protect a population from a biological event.

Anticipate Tomorrow

Adaptive resilience is the ability to learn from the past, understand current capabilities and to anticipate tomorrow’s threats.  Terrorists measure their success by not only the number of fatalities, but also by their reach into traditional and social media.  Since September 11, 2001, spectacular attacks that kill thousands have remained elusive to terrorists, but the vulnerability of super tall skyscrapers again offers opportunities for mass murder and destruction.

Unlike 9/11, when commercial planes were used as massive kinetic-incendiary devices and flown into high-rise buildings, tomorrow’s terrorist operatives who appear to be more easily radicalized can use a mix of easily accessible guns, explosives and fire against large soft targets to return terrorist campaigns to a level of sensationalism.  It is up to the intelligence community, first responders and the private sector to develop new procedures to prevent, protect from, mitigate and respond to this new vertical threat.

We must also be aware that coordinated physical attacks might be preceded by cyber-attacks on financial, utility and transportation sectors, as well as distributed denial of service attacks against first responders’ computer systems.  The combination of cyber and kinetic attacks add another level of complexity to which we need to adapt.  Anticipating potential future threats creates the context for connecting the dots for prevention and for developing new response tactics to better mitigate attacks when they do occur.

The 15th anniversary of 9/11 prompts all of us to reflect on our organization’s process of adaptive resilience.  Have we learned from the past, honored our heroes, enhanced our core, ensured flexibility and anticipated the future, so we can adapt to the next extreme event?  And, have we learned to connect, collaborate and coordinate together in managing multiple incidents in a 3-dimensional operational space?  9/11 is not only part of our history; it gives us insight into a future that also demands adaptive resilience in the present.

About the Author


Joseph Pfeifer is an assistant chief for the New York City Fire Department and founding director of FDNY’s Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness.  He was the first chief at the WTC on 9/11.  He is also a visiting instructor for the Center of Homeland Defense and Security at NPS, a senior fellow at the Programs for Crisis Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, and a senior fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.  He holds master’s degrees from the Harvard Kennedy School, Naval Postgraduate School and Immaculate Conception.  He is published in various professional journals and books.

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