From the Archives: 9/11 Hero Tells Tale of Losses, Lessons
In 2004, SSI spoke with ex-Chief Richard Picciotto, the last fireman to escape 9/11’s World Trade Center devastation, about how the electronic security industry could best aid firefighting efforts.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the October 2004 issue of SSI and went on to capture the Western Publishing Association “Maggie” Award for Best Interview or Profile/Trade. A modified version is presented again here to commemorate the 19-year anniversary of 9/11. Richard Picciotto has continued to share his amazing experiences, spread the lessons learned from that tragic event, and offer relevant commentary through CNN, History Channel, National Geographic, public speaking engagements and other avenues.
America will never forget the staggering horror and loss of Sept. 11, 2001. Yet — be it trauma, self-absorption or simply short attention spans — the progression of time has seen many Americans gradually distance themselves from the World Trade Center attacks. However, for at least one man, a heroic man whose mortality was pushed to the limit, such diversions are not an option.
That man is Chief Richard Picciotto, who was preparing to go on duty as battalion commander of Manhattan’s Upper West Side when the tragic events of 9/11 began to unfold. The 28-year Fire Department of New York (FDNY) veteran — who was also on the scene after 1993’s WTC bombing — rushed to Ground Zero to assist rescue efforts.
Picciotto entered the North Tower and climbed as high as the 35th floor before hearing and feeling the adjacent South Tower crashing down. He then made the call for firemen and rescue workers to evacuate, but stayed behind with a skeleton crew to save disabled and injured civilians. It wasn’t long, however, before the North Tower also collapsed, trapping Picciotto, who had been between the sixth and seventh floors at the time, and several others under the tremendous rubble and debris.
With their fate hanging by a thread, Picciotto and his men then used their radios to send out mayday calls until a search party was dispatched. When light finally appeared from above, the chief and the others ascended some four stories until they reached the top of a humongous heap that, up until that morning, had been one of the world’s tallest buildings and proudest symbols of the American way.
Picciotto emerged nearly unscathed after a harrowing four hours to become the highest-ranking firefighter to survive the WTC collapse and the last to escape the destruction. Picciotto, who is also a former New York police officer, has since retired and carried forth to tell his amazing story of courage and survival through his book, “Last Man Down: A Fireman’s Story,” and public-speaking engagements where he offers tribute to the lives lost on 9/11 and discusses the lessons learned.
Many of those lessons relate to measures that can prevent or mitigate large-scale fire/life-safety calamities — such as the systems provided by installing security dealers and systems integrators. In an exclusive interview, SSI tapped into Chief Picciotto’s unique perspective and asked him how the electronic security industry can best help firefighters.
1993 Attack Unheeded; 9/11 Fades
First off, let me say what a distinct honor it is to meet you. Going back to that fateful day, can you tell me when you arrived at Ground Zero, what was the scene like and what was going through your mind when the North Tower you were in began to collapse?
Richard Picciotto: I arrived on the scene shortly after the second plane hit. People were jumping out of windows. We were hoping to contain the fire, but I also knew it was going to be near impossible to put it out. When I first went into the North Tower, I just was thinking how we had to get people out as fast as possible.
But then the building crumbled and I was thinking that I would be dead in a few seconds. I just wanted to die quickly. Many others were trapped in the rubble as well, but only 13 others – including 11 firemen, one Port Authority officer and one civilian — made it to safety.
You also witnessed the carnage and aftermath of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Aside from the level of destruction, how did the two attacks differ and what was learned from the first one?
Picciotto: Thanks to implemented recommendations by the Port Authority after the 1993 bombing, once fire and police responders got on the scene, they did a great job of evacuating people on 9/11. For example, lighting in stairwells helped get people out a lot faster. In 1993, evacuation was painfully long. On 9/11, we got roughly 90% of the people out in 40 minutes.
Some things from 1993 did not change. Communications were a major problem then and again on 9/11. Communications between fire service and within the building failed. The fire department’s radios were woefully inadequate. That did not improve even though better equipment was available. It might have been a different story if the powers that be would have spent the money.
Considering the years that have transpired, are too many people losing sight of what needs to be done to prevent future disasters like 9/11?
Picciotto: Sadly, yes. There are still things first responders need, including basic communication equipment. When politics get involved, things get muddied. Without a doubt, people are losing sight of the safety awareness they had after 9/11.
Another terrorist attack is going to happen and people cannot afford to forget. We cannot make the same mistakes, we have to be vigilant and know what could happen again. I don’t want to see it happen again, but it will … and we are still not as prepared as we should be.
Technology and Firefighting
As someone with more than a quarter-century of experience, how have you seen technology change and affect firefighting through the years?
Picciotto: I like technology. We have seen it change on both sides – for better and worse. It is a double-edged sword.
Buildings built today are more dangerous due to the use of lightweight trusses and new kinds of materials that may be structurally stronger but break down faster in a fire. The major reason the World Trade Center went down like it did was its design. The use of lightweight materials made the towers incapable of withstanding explosions.
The Empire State Building, for example, would have held up better due to its construction. In addition, it is designed so there are fewer occupants on the higher floors. In the World Trade Center, there were as many on the top as the bottom. Technology is great, but just because we can build a building 200 stories high, should we?
On the other hand, there are better fire safety plans and systems in place today. We can isolate the problem faster and find out temperatures in various places of a building, for example. That is great technology. Same thing with sprinkler systems — instead of just gushing a deluge of water, they can turn themselves on and off. This helps minimize property damage by keeping the fire in the incipient stage, allowing us to put it out.
How valuable to firefighters are systems designed and installed by security dealers and integrators, such as addressable fire alarm control panels and sprinklers?
Picciotto: As a former police office and fire chief, I know a lot of buildings are very security-conscious but not safety-conscious enough. They are really two separate functions that often seem to have opposing goals. For example, security is more concerned about regulating the flow of people in and out of buildings, whereas life safety is the opposite in that there must be free egress.
When we get on the scene, any information we have is helpful to us. If it is computerized and it can tell us what doors are locked, what floors are occupied, etc. … now that is of tremendous value. The more information we have, the better, even though we certainly do not need all of it. Of course, the occupants having a prefire plan in place as well as a sensible building layout is also very important.
Typically, we are in favor of sprinkler systems, but it depends on what they are trying to save. For example, computer components may require foam. The system has to be designed according to what the building owners or tenants are trying to prevent the loss of. The construction, occupants, building layout and materials present all play a part.
Suppliers Should Seek Feedback
How much direct interaction do firefighters typically have with electronic fire detection systems?
Picciotto: Unfortunately, a lot of times systems are in place where the people on site do not know the functions, operation or resetting procedures. It could be a multimillion-dollar site and no one knows anything about it! You might have a $5-an-hour person responsible for it! It is a major problem. Firefighters will try to reset the alarm, but are not always able.
They learn about these systems by going on a lot of calls. In addition, they will select specific buildings and run fire drills in which they find out all they can about a specific location. Sometimes, there have been fires afterward and drilling beforehand was very beneficial. We try to conduct the drills on weekends so as to not disrupt a business. There will usually be fire safety and security people present as well.
Do people ever ask for advice on system design or products?
Picciotto: When buildings are not up to code, we file reports. There are different codes depending on age of building. Some have to be upgraded and some do not. We refer those matters to our Fire Prevention department, which then looks into it. As for products, being New York City, we are not allowed to offer any information when people ask our advice. We cannot get into specifics.
Do you believe the manufacturers of electronic fire detection and life-safety products get enough feedback from firefighters?
Picciotto: I believe the industry should get more feedback from firefighters. The technology may be there, but knowing exactly what we want and where we want it is crucial. Ask us what we need! After all, we are the ones going in there to save people and structures.
Fire Alarms Seen as Essential
Do you believe the general public is becoming more aware of fire and life-safety precautions?
Picciotto: Yes and no. Carbon monoxide detectors are becoming very popular and we are going out on a lot of them. We get a lot of erroneous calls, but some true ones as well. I believe the people are becoming more and more aware. Builders are finding the cost of CO detectors compared to the potential loss is beneficial. Plus there is usually some sort of tax rebate based on the fire safety built in to a building. We are also seeing a huge increase in sprinklers, including residences, even though they are not required.
However, the general public is under informed regarding fire safety procedures, especially in high-rise buildings. There is not a lot of knowledge to know, but when you need it, it can change or save your life. Every once in a while, a group of people does the wrong thing, like going to the roof, and it is very frustrating. Better education could help. People need to consider actions where the odds are in their favor for survival.
After 9/11, congressmen were advocating helicopter rescues from high-rise buildings; it just is not going to happen. Too many people talk out of ignorance without knowing what they are saying.
False alarms are a huge issue with burglar alarms as many police agencies look at verified response. With more and more detection devices being deployed, could we see similar response issues with fire alarms, especially considering some areas, such as Las Vegas, already require verification for fire alarms?
Picciotto: We will endorse anything that can help us diminish the effects of fire, be it alarms, CCTV cameras, sprinklers; they all can definitely help us. While it is true that we do have a huge increase in false alarms, it is an annoyance that comes with the territory. I hope there is never a day when we do not respond to fire alarms. There may be fines involved, but I think we will always respond.
As far as I am concerned, the more alarms systems, even if they are redundant, the better. As a fire person, I want to know when any alarm is triggered for whatever reason as soon as possible. I would rather have the systems out there in place than have doubt about missing a legitimate call.
Chief Decides to Spread His Story
What made you decide to write the book?
Picciotto: I was going to a lot of funerals and visiting a lot of firehouses. People wanted to know what happened at Ground Zero and I found myself constantly sharing my experience. Those people then encouraged me to spread the word. I thought about it and wrote memories of what had taken place. That translated into the book, which presents my first-person account and has gotten a tremendously positive response.
What inspired you to get into law enforcement and firefighting in the first place?
Picciotto: I grew up in a blue-collar, middle-class area and saw a lot of police and firefighters. I really enjoy helping people and this is a job that provides immediate gratification. To me, it has been very rewarding.
As a speaker, what venues are you most often asked to address?
Picciotto: Schools, risk management people and assorted others. I try to give them a personal perspective and share the lessons learned.
What do you typically cover in your speaking engagements?
Picciotto: I talk about my experience, what I went through and the lessons learned. It was a terrible day in history, but it also brought out some of the best qualities in people with how Americans banded together, especially the fire and police departments and other security forces. Everyone tried to help each other.
I also talk a little bit about the fire and life-safety equipment that was in place at the World Trade Center and what should have been there.
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