Rescue divers prepare to enter the water off of a fireboat. - Photo by James Kiesling.

Rescue divers prepare to enter the water off of a fireboat.

Photo by James Kiesling.

In May, the Fire Department of New York held a large-scale exercise in which the same scenario was repeated continuously during three two-day operational periods. Each operational period simulated two synchronized terrorist attacks in different locations of New York City.

The scenario given to the participants involved a large explosion in a commuter tunnel entering Manhattan. The tunnel conducted both vehicle and rail service into and out of Manhattan.

Simultaneously, numerous 911 calls had been received regarding an explosion on a boat cruise near Jamaica Bay. Initial reports indicated that the boat was the site of a political fundraiser with many VIPs onboard.          

Choosing terrorist attacks as the topic for this exercise was appropriate for several reasons. New York City has long been a favorite target for terrorists. In the early 1900s, anarchists conducted several bombings, including the Wall Street bombing in 1920 that killed 38 people.

In the 1970s there were numerous radical groups that conducted bombings in NYC, including anti-Vietnam war protestors, the Weather Underground, and FALN (a Puerto Rican independence group).

Finally, starting with the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center until the present day, the attacks have mostly related to Muslim extremists, including hijacking, bombings, shootings, stabbings, and vehicle ramming.

In addition to the relevance of terrorist attacks as a training scenario, it allowed for scenarios that were diverse both geographically and as to the skills that would be required to mitigate them.

Exercise Participants

The first railcart is being loaded with equipment to enter the tunnel.  - Photo by James Kiesling.

The first railcart is being loaded with equipment to enter the tunnel. 

Photo by James Kiesling.

The main participant of this exercise was FDNY's Special Operations Command Task Force (SOC TF). This task force is mostly modeled after the Federal Emergency Management Agency's urban search and rescue teams, NY-TF1, but consists of FDNY personnel only. Another important distinction is that while NY-TF1 is a federal asset, the SOC TF can be both a state and a local asset.

The task force that responded to the boat explosion was specifically a SOC TF, Water Mission Ready Package (MRP). MRPs can be customized to fit various situations.

Other participants in this event included boats from the FDNY Marine Division, an FDNY incident management team (IMT), New York City Office of Emergency Management (OEM), and local members of a community emergency response team (CERT). The CERT member operated as victims, complete with moulage to simulate various injuries. Approximately 400 FDNY members participated.

For this exercise I served as an evaluator at the tunnel explosion throughout the three operational periods.  For this reason, while I will touch upon other aspects and participants of the exercise, I will concentrate on the operations of the SOC TF at the tunnel explosion.

Maritime operations consisted of rescuers responding to the passenger boat explosion with both large fireboats and inflatable boats launched from shore. These assets conducted searches and rescues along the area's shorelines. In addition, rescue divers were deployed to where the boat was reported to have sunk to search for anyone who could have been trapped.

Rescue operations at the tunnel began with the deployment of a reconnaissance team comprised of several specialists including a search team manager and a structural specialist to evaluate the tunnel's stability.

As this team found victims and identified hazards, the appropriate personnel and equipment were deployed. Victims were extricated, treated by medical personnel and removed on specialized rail carts. Physical obstacles and hazards were breached with saws, hydraulic tools, jackhammers, and torches, moved with heavy rigging equipment, or shored up. Hazardous materials specialists were called to identify and mitigate these hazards.

Simultaneously, high-tech search options such as video systems, ground-borne robotics and aerial drones were deployed, and the data collected and displayed in real time at the command post. These operations would continue non-stop until the end of the operational period.

Defining Objectives

One or the robots that was utilized to conduct searches of the tunnel. - Photo by James Kiesling.

One or the robots that was utilized to conduct searches of the tunnel.

Photo by James Kiesling.

During the development of this exercise numerous objectives were established. Some of the initial objectives were to test a new emergency notification system, the task force mobilization procedures and our logistics capabilities.

At the command level, some of the objectives were to test the interaction between the IMT and the SOC TFs operating in two different locations to evaluate the ability of the task force to gather and disseminate critical incident information, such as the incident's size and scope, the conditions, victim locations, patient tracking and incident progress.

At the operational level, some of the objectives were to test the ability of new members of the SOC TF to operate in a high-stress environment for an extended duration while accomplishing core technical rescue capabilities.

In addition to training new members, it provided the opportunity to place more senior members into new, more advanced roles. From an equipment perspective, it allowed us to push the limits of our technical rescue gear by utilizing it in extreme environments and for extended durations.

Some other highly specialized but rarely used pieces of equipment such as rail cars were used and some new technologies such as robots and airborne drones were evaluated.

Overall, FDNY SOC Task Force 2019 Full Scale Exercise was a success. Everyone (myself included) learned a lot and the after-action reviews included many ways to implement what was learned. I have already seen some recommendations implemented at our last collapse rescue course and have implemented some myself at a company level. 

While terrorism may not be your team's number-one concern and the technical rescue disciplines covered and equipment tested in this exercise may not be important to you, the concept of this type of exercise should be. When designing an exercise of this magnitude the cause of the emergency should be plausible to your area of operations.

In addition, the cause should be something plausible for which you need to test your response. An example would be an exercise planned around an explosion. This is a possible scenario in an industrial setting and could be the cause of many events written into your script.

Some of the potential secondary events could include fires, collapse, mass casualties, and hazardous materials releases.

The list goes on and on. With just a little imagination, you should be able to plan an exercise that will test and/or train your team and your equipment in any situation that is deemed important to you.


James Kiesling is the Captain of Squad 1 of the New York City Fire Department's Special Operations Command. He holds as AOS in fire protection technology from Corning Community College, a bachelor's in fire and emergency services from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an master's in homeland security and defense from the Naval Postgraduate School.