Respond to Terror Like a Terrorist

Emergency plans in New York City did not fit with how terrorists operate

Not so long ago, on the 23rd floor of World Trade Center Building 7, there sat the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management. It was the nerve center of the city’s crisis handling.

The US $15 million facility opened in 1999, and supporters touted it as the most advanced emergency municipal headquarters in the United States. They cited, for instance, its positive-pressure ventilation system as a bulwark against a bioterrorist attack.

But no one even imagined two jet aircraft crashing into the Twin Towers. On the day the EOC was needed most, two giant fuel bombs reduced it, along with the rest of the World Trade Center, to a smoking pile of rubble.

Not everyone had been charmed with the idea back in 1998, when the project to locate the EOC in the World Trade Center was mooted. One opponent was Ed Shaughnessy, professor of sociology and law at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and an expert in emergency management. Instead, he suggested the EOC take over the Fire Department Command and Control Center located in a hardened underground bunker on Staten Island.

"I said, ’Look, you could run an F-16 down the Hudson and it could launch two missiles’ [at the EOC and take it out]," Shaughnessy told IEEE Spectrum.

While he sees the response to the World Trade Center attacks as superb, Shaughnessy believes emergency planners and city officials need a new strategy now that the enemy "has our playbook."

Part of the terrorists’ playbook is to inflict as much damage as possible, including maximum carnage among rescue teams, according to the John Jay professor. He speculates that the kamikaze hijackers counted on the rescuers reacting precisely as trained–rushing into a building regardless of its structural integrity.

In his view, the fact that the 300 and more firefighters who perished did not hesitate to enter when the first plane hit the North Tower testifies to their bravery, but also suggests their commanders were not thinking like terrorists. Had they been, they would have been on the alert for what Shaughnessy said is a classic terrorist tactic: luring emergency workers in with one destructive act before delivering the second. In this case, the second plane slammed into the South Tower approximately 18 minutes after the first crash.

"That’s the problem," said the expert. "We don’t think the way the enemy thinks."

–Harry Goldstein

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