Former 9/11 FDNY commissioner: Voice notification vital

Tom Von Essen, now a safety consultant for Honeywell’s Gamewell-FCI division, says deployment of mass notification systems is too slow
Monday, December 16, 2013

NORTHFORD, Conn.—Voice notification is an essential part of mass notification systems, says Tom Von Essen, former commissioner of the New York Fire Department who served during 9/11 and its aftermath.

“People want to have directions” about what specifically to do and where to go in an emergency, Von Essen told Security Director News.

“We get over-warned about a lot of things now, there are so many safety warnings out there. People want to know that this is not a drill,” he said.

Von Essen, a longtime FDNY firefighter, is now an advocate for mass notification and voice notification, specifically. He is a senior safety consultant for Honeywell’s Gamewell-FCI division.

It has been more than a decade since two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, changing the lives of Americans forever, and resulting in the deaths of 2,750 people.

If it happened today, thanks to the evolution of situational awareness technology and mass notification systems, mass casualties could be mitigated, Von Essen said at a press conference at Honeywell Life Safety, based here.

Mass adoption of mass notification systems “is going to take a long time. So far the military is the only group that mandates it. And it should spread faster into universities,” he said.

Von Essen was on his way to work Sept. 11, 2001, when he got a call about a “small plane” crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

He arrived at the scene in two minutes. It didn’t make sense, he said. “They said it was a small plane, but the windows are all gone. Then, I hear a loud thud over here about 15 feet away from me, I look, and it’s a person. It sounded like a car. It was that heavy,” having fallen from an upper floor of the tower, he said.

The fire chief on the scene told him it couldn’t have been a small plane that hit the tower, and that they couldn’t get the fire out. They knew it was a major event, a major commercial plane fire. They shut down the elevators.

Then Von Essen started getting other reports. “The Sears Tower has been hit, the Mall of America hit.  … There was so much confusion,” he said.

So many reports early that day were inaccurate and accurate information wasn’t getting out there to the first responders who needed to know it, he said.

“Fire departments from all over the city, from the boroughs, from all over the place, responded [to the World Trade Center], and they didn’t know anything about the buildings,” he said.

The World Trade Center’s security plan was to contain all employees in one tower if there was a security concern in the other. After the plane hit the North Tower, employees from the South Tower were scrambling to get out. “We told them to go back upstairs,” he said. “Because that was the plan. Many of those people died after the second plane hit.”

Technology has evolved so that first responders should no longer be in the desperate position that he faced on 9/11, he said.

“I’ve seen how situational awareness does and doesn’t work out in there in the field,” he said.

“Potentially, we will have the capability for someone sitting at a [monitoring] panel to speak up, say those planes are too close” and to give first responders a better idea of where to go and what is needed, he said.

After Von Essen retired, he attended a conference on mass notification. “I saw in that presentation the beginnings of what people were always asking me: ‘Do you think anything good came out of 9/11?’ I always said no, because it had been for me and so many people such a horrible, horrible event. So many friends lost, the firefighters we lost.”

But when he realized the potential of mass notification systems, “this ability to expand our skills, the ability to get people information,” he changed his mind.

“Redundancy” through numerous channels should work, he said. “We owe that.”

End users should take note, he said.