Preparing for the unexpected: Insights from a 9/11 FDNY deputy fire chief
Leadership Development

Preparing for the unexpected: Insights from a 9/11 FDNY deputy fire chief

In this podcast, Mike Puzziferri, retired deputy fire chief in the FDNY, shares his experience during the recovery and rebuilding after 9/11 and the lessons the FDNY learned to better prepare for future crises.
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In this podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Cheryl Stokes speaks with Mike Puzziferri, retired deputy chief in the FDNY, the Fire Department of the City of New York, and a key leader in the FDNY’s response to the 9/11 attacks. Puzziferri shares his experience, including how the department recovered and rebuilt itself, during one of the most challenging periods in the history of the FDNY. Puzziferri discusses the important changes that were made to the FDNY’s crisis management plan, operations, and culture after the attacks, making the FDNY stronger and more prepared for threats and the unexpected, lessons any organization can heed to become more resilient and better prepared for crises.

Some questions answered in this episode include the following:

  • (3:37) How did you go about rebuilding the FDNY after 9/11? How did you regain your human capital, good operational capability, and really shore up the culture?
  • (7:15) As one of the FDNY’s leaders, what did you do to promote, sponsor, and support this journey of change?
  • (10:43) How did purpose and vision play into your ability to innovate?
  • (12:00) What are the things that you as a leader do to contribute to your culture, to build resilience and a learning orientation?
  • (18:09) What parallels do you see with the changes that were required to rebuild after 9/11 and what the world is facing right now with COVID-19?

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, the premier provider of leadership consulting, culture shaping, and senior-level executive search services. Every day, we’re privileged to talk with fascinating people who are shaping the future through their leadership and vision. In each episode, you’ll hear a different perspective from thought leaders and innovators. Thanks for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast.

Cheryl Stokes: Hello, I’m Cheryl Stokes, a partner in Heidrick & Struggles New York office and a member of Heidrick Consulting’s Leadership Development and Culture Shaping practices. In today’s podcast, I’m speaking with Mike Puzziferri, retired deputy fire chief and a key leader in the FDNY, the Fire Department of the City of New York. Mike is also a senior research associate with the Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Mike was a pivotal player in the FDNY’s response on 9/11 [September 11, 2001], and he was one of many chiefs leading operations at the World Trade Center and in the recovery afterwards. Mike, welcome, and thank you for taking time to speak with us today.

Mike Puzziferri: Morning, Cheryl. It’s my pleasure to be able to give my perspective on the FDNY’s recovery after 9/11.

Cheryl Stokes: Mike, you helped lead the FDNY through one of the most difficult and challenging periods in history, the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent rebuilding. Can you remind us of the state of the FDNY after 9/11?

Mike Puzziferri: The FDNY was devastated after the 9/11 attacks. We were heartbroken, emotionally challenged, operationally challenged, and uncertain about the department’s way forward. While there were many effects after the attacks on the World Trade Center, there are three areas that I’m going to highlight.

First are the losses of our human capital. We lost 343 folks that day, among the 2,000-plus who were lost at the Trade Center collapse. This included our agency’s top leadership—the chief of the department, the first deputy commissioner, staff chiefs, deputy chiefs, battalion chiefs, on down through the ranks. And the loss of human capital in numbers was something like the loss of related institutional knowledge of more than 4,000 years.

And then the second loss was to our operation resources and their capabilities—loss of specialized equipment, apparatus, specialized units, any type of equipment that you might imagine would be attached to an emergency response.

The third area is the effect of the attacks on the culture. Of course, there was a sadness that permeated the department from the human losses, and the loss of senior personnel was big because they were cultural icons, mentors, opinion leaders at all levels, and senior personnel who took the young folks under their wing and kind of shaped their futures and their careers. And then finally there was a shock to the system. Folks were tired; we were physically and mentally exhausted. Then arose the question of whether we had the capabilities to face the threats of the new world.

Cheryl Stokes: Wow, Mike, that is absolutely devastating, even hearing it again today, and it had to seem insurmountable at that time. So talk to us about what you all were able to do to go about rebuilding. How did you regain your human capital, good operational capability, and really shore up the culture?

Mike Puzziferri: The attacks occurred in September, and by January of the next year we had a new commissioner who would champion the change. He came in and he had a plan. He brought in a well-known consulting group and conducted an independent, narrow review of the attacks that day. Within a five-month period, the consultant teamed up with task forces from the Fire Department of New York, about 50 folks, and together these two groups developed a plan for going forward, published in a document that came out in August of 2002, and this would be the road map for us going forward.

There were four areas of change that the plan focused on. The first was to increase operational procedures to manage escalating and large-scale events, and this focused on improving interoperability and accountability. And they utilized a system called the incident command system that was introduced to the FDNY, and with that, two incident management teams. These are 28-person teams that can be dropped into any type of emergency and immediately start to put things together. It’s a modular framework that can expand as needed and collapse as needed.

The second improvement focused on improving the department’s planning and management processes. They put in place a formal planning agenda with an annual plan. There were clearly laid-out goals and objectives for the year. It had tracking tools that aligned with the mission and vision of the department. And then this, I think, was one of the biggest moves that helped to make the rebuilding a success: they developed a planning and oversight committee, and they would be the folks who would start to create and put together tailored programs that the rest of the department would become involved in and create the change.

A third area that was lacking on the day of the attacks was communications and technology capabilities. So the fire department developed a state-of-the-art communications center. I would say that it looked like something out of Star Trek, but that’s outdated now, but at the time it did. And then it got us new radio capabilities—tall buildings in New York are difficult to talk beyond floor to floor, so we got new technology that helped to improve our communications with other agencies.

And then finally there was a focus on cultural changes, and one of the big ones was to enhance family and member support services. Part of our culture is to take care of the families that we’ve lost, and after the initial losses on 9/11, a lot of time was spent on that, for the nine months afterwards while we were working at the 9/11 site during recovery and then even for years beyond that. So that was really a calming effect on the culture, and it really showed that the department was concerned about not only the folks on duty but the extended families as well.

Cheryl Stokes: Mike, that is really impressive. As one of the FDNY’s leaders, what did you do to promote, sponsor, and support this journey of change?

Mike Puzziferri: I was one of many; there were hundreds of folks working on projects, doing training, and taking the steps necessary to recover and then rebuild the department and eventually make it stronger than it was before we were hit on 9/11. So for me, as an example of one of those many folks, I would have a day job: I would work in the field as a battalion chief in the North Bronx and then as a deputy chief in Midtown Manhattan, and I’d work in that pyramid-type structure, chain of command. But then the big piece, and I thought this was really kind of fun, too, was that the planning committee developed a matrix-type system where we had our day job in the pyramid, and at night, with whatever spare time we had, we’d work on our projects in a safe space off on the side. And it really led to time to be creative, to do research, and, this was part of the deal, to come back with something that had or potentially had legs and was really actionable.

So I promoted information-sharing capacities. I sponsored a Fire Officers Management Institute group, which was an executive education group (like a corporate education group for senior leaders), and I supported collaboration with other organizations. We utilized the exercise design program and had exercises with almost any agency you could think of in New York City, and then beyond that. We worked with Coast Guard agencies, the National Guard, the MTA [Metropolitan Transportation Authority], and on and on. I was given an opportunity to lead a kind of think tank. After the 9/11 attacks, one of the outcomes was the development of what I call a “think and do tank.” We would put together projects and actually implement them. And the fellow that put together the Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness (CTDP) took a year off, so I was put in his spot for a year, and I acted as the bureau chief. The CTDP had an exercise design wing; it had a weapons of mass destruction wing, and that included studying the potential threats that you might see in the movies or on TV. And we also looked at all hazards—hurricanes, earthquakes, and so on. But what we were lacking was an information-sharing capability. So I had a staff that was unbelievable; I made some suggestions, and they went forward and created an information-sharing capability that spreads across the nation, and they interact with different organizations and exchange information and knowledge drawn from that information and increase our preparedness.

Cheryl Stokes: That sounds great, Mike. I thought it was interesting that you were able to create this think-and-do tank. How did purpose and vision play into your ability to innovate?

Mike Puzziferri: The fellow that developed the CTDP was the initial chief at the World Trade Center attacks, so his vision was pretty clear afterwards. He wanted to develop a capability that would answer the problems that were encountered that day—namely, weapons of mass destruction, or, in this case, the terrorist attacks. He wanted to develop a system that would assess capabilities of organizations, so he developed the exercise design portion, and then I had the opportunity to develop the information-sharing portion. And really they came out of the need that we found that day at the World Trade Center. We just felt it in our hearts and our souls that these were areas that had to be focused on. And not just focused on but answered, and answered in a manner that they were taken care of.

Cheryl Stokes: You talked about the culture as being resilient, as being a learning organization, and so many organizations today desire to have what you’re describing. What are the things that you as a leader do to contribute to that culture and to build that resilience and the learning orientation that you have?

Mike Puzziferri: From the moment that you walk in the door in your first firehouse, someone senior in rank, someone who has had time on the job, more experience, takes you under his or her wing and takes on responsibility and accountability for your education. And then that’s scalable, that goes on through the ranks: lieutenant, captain, battalion chief, deputy chief, staff chief, and so on.

But one of the other things is that the fire department looks ahead at its current leaders and then makes the decision on who is likely to be the next level of leaders, and then even a third tier, and it starts to take those folks and shape them. For the senior folks, it is the Fire Officers Management Institute, the executive education piece. There are leadership programs such as the West Point Leadership Program or the Naval Postgraduate School, where folks join in on these graduate-level type programs. The purpose is to get the next tiers of leaders engaged in ideas that are kind of outside the box.

And these kinds of programs we relegated to the matrix-type design where they could be in a safe place and work these creative ideas, and then they would bring the creative ideas back to the department. And I would say that one of the beauties of the department is that we had superiors who were open to change, understanding that you needed to change with the times and change with what was happening out there to keep the organization safe and to still get our jobs done.

Cheryl Stokes: After doing all of this and seeing these improvements, how did the FDNY leadership share these lessons from 9/11 and beyond with other agencies? Can you tell us a story about that?

Mike Puzziferri: Yes. I think this is a good story. During Hurricane Katrina [in August 2005], New Orleans got hit really hard, but the New Orleans Fire Department was also hit really hard. They had some folks who were experienced with flooding and the effects of hurricanes in New Orleans, and their chief of operations was a really sharp guy—he had his own hurricane modeling software that he used to follow [hurricanes]. He had a pretty good idea of what the effects of Katrina would be once it made landfall, and he was right. And prior to Katrina making landfall, he removed many of the apparatus in New Orleans that he felt would be in areas that would flood, and he moved them to high ground. Nonetheless, the New Orleans Fire Department took a really hard hit—many of the firehouses were damaged, apparatus were lost, many of the folks working in the department lost their homes from flooding and their families were dispersed. It was really a tough time.

So the fire chief of New Orleans made a phone call up to New York and asked if we could come down and help. And we went down and implemented an ad hoc fire department. We basically relieved New Orleans firefighters so that they could go home and take care of their families, take care of their homes, and get things back in order so they could eventually get back to work. We put together the ad hoc fire department by collaborating with folks from Chicago and Maryland and remnants of the New Orleans Fire Department, and we delivered the essential services and protected life and property as best we could.

But here’s where the other part of the story comes in. When the World Trade Center was hit and it collapsed, folks from New Orleans came up and helped us immediately, so we were happy to go down there and help them. But what I think is an unbelievable and totally surprising move was that the folks in Louisiana collected money, had a brand-new fire engine developed, and they gave it to us. And they trucked up this fire engine from New Orleans, and it was named the Spirit of Louisiana, and it was put into service in New York, in Brooklyn. Can you imagine a fire engine gifted to the City of New York and to the Fire Department of New York? It was just really heartwarming, and what a great move.

So the bottom line was yes, we had a new capability, we were able to help a sister city in need, and, importantly, it was a change that was observable, it was tangible. And not only was it helpful for the folks down there, that we went down with our 650 people, but it was a tangible improvement. And for us back home, we could actually say, “Hey, we didn’t have this on 9/11, and it hurt us, but we have it now.” So it was helpful for us going forward. It was really a good achievement to help us put those hard feelings of that day, or that capability we didn’t have that day, behind us, and now we were going forward in an observable manner.

Cheryl Stokes: Wow, Mike, what an inspiring story with tangible change and outcomes. We’re talking about this in the middle of an extraordinary time in the world. COVID-19 has shifted the very fabric of what it means to live and work. What parallels do you see with the changes that were required to rebuild after 9/11 and what the world is facing right now with COVID-19?

Mike Puzziferri: They are very similar events, and from an organizational development perspective, I would call these both focusing events. They’re sudden, relatively rare events causing harm over a geographic area or constituency, with a potential for greater future harms, that catch the policymakers’ eyes and make us aware of potential policy failures. These are going to change policy, both events. Of course, 9/11 was a huge policy changer, and COVID-19 will be as well. We can see policy changes as the responses, the parallels that enforce the idea that preparedness is ongoing; you can’t prepare for one event and think that you’re prepared for the next. There needs to be a continuous scrutiny at all levels.

You hear all the time during COVID-19 about mindfulness, about taking care of yourself. High-reliability organizations practice mindfulness, which is the continuous scrutiny of existing expectations in the face of the potential threats or hazards out there. And it’s the ability to incorporate new ideas and increase your agency’s or organization’s ability to deliver its essential products in the face of new threats or the unexpected. They illustrate that organizations may not be able to do it alone. This was a big one on 9/11; it was very difficult for us that our response, our inter-agency coordination that day was minimal. Now you need networks to respond to these things, and you need a framework that expands rapidly, and when things are under control, it collapses to the appropriate level that is needed.

Cheryl Stokes: Just one last question: what advice do you have for other leaders as they think about how diversity and inclusion can add value to their business and to their organization?

Mike Puzziferri: In emergency management planning, diversity enables people to see different things when viewing the same event. A cross-fertilization of ideas leads to richer planning and fewer blind spots, and fewer blind spots reduces the likelihood of facing the unexpected and increases the likelihood of developing or delivering your organization’s essential services or products.

Cheryl Stokes: That’s brilliant, and you’re absolutely right: the cross-fertilization links to the inclusion. Any final thoughts about how we can increase inclusion?

Mike Puzziferri: Yes, reach out. You have to make an effort to get a diverse group at the table to plan. It’s something that really has to be done. You increase your ability to include others by taking part in activities such as the Naval Postgraduate School or the Fire Officers Management Institute, where the cohorts are diverse and you have an opportunity to share ideas in a safe space and bring those ideas back and cross-fertilize them at the planning table at work. So you have to go out. And when I say you have to make the opportunity to do so, you need to seek out these programs that force ideas and diversity.

Cheryl Stokes: Mike, thank you for making the time to speak with us today.

Mike Puzziferri: Thank you, Cheryl.

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