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New York Still Hammering Out Emergency Plans

Two-and-a-half years after the World Trade Center (search) attack, a plan to improve the city's handling of emergencies is incomplete because of bureaucratic delays and infighting between the police and fire departments.

The federally mandated plan for police and firefighter response to all types of emergencies was supposed to be complete last fall. But it is stalled over a plan to give police ultimate control if there is a terrorist attack, say fire and police officials familiar with the negotiations.

Many in the fire department see the proposal as part of a wider, long-standing rivalry between New York's Finest and Bravest.

"Police want to be in charge of everything," said Deputy Chief Nick Visconti, who represents chiefs for the Uniformed Fire Officers Association (search). "We're supposed to play nice in the sandbox. That seldom works because there's egos involved."

Cities that want to receive federal homeland security funding must adopt a uniform national program for responding to disasters by October. The federal mandate is meant to ensure the smooth interworking of federal, state and local agencies by assuring that they use a consistent set of terms and roles known as the incident command system.

"We say, in the city of New York, the lead agency for terrorist attack should be the police department. But that doesn't mean we tell the fire department how to fight fires," said Paul Browne, the police department's deputy commissioner for public information. "There's a certain logic and I think it'll be worked out."

Fire officials say they fear the police department is trying to take over traditional fire department duties, such as handling hazardous materials incidents, which would give them control of the federal homeland security funds.

Giving police control of firefighting operations with which they have little experience could put rescuers and civilians at risk, firefighters say.

"The consequences of terrorist acts — explosions, fires, structural collapses, toxic smoke and hazardous substances — must be mitigated to protect the public and all first responders," fire department spokesman Frank Gribbon said. "Firefighters and EMS personnel have the expertise, training and equipment to address these aspects of terrorism."

Police officials say they have no intention of micromanaging firefighting operations. But they say it's only natural for the nation's largest law-enforcement agency to manage any response to what could be simultaneous and geographically dispersed attacks on New York.

Calls for the city to put in place a single blueprint for managing massive emergencies began after independent studies of the terrorist attack revealed serious flaws in communication and coordination between the police and fire departments.

The agencies have a long-standing rivalry. The tension flared most famously in November 2001, when police and firefighters scuffled during a demonstration organized by fire unions protesting changes to the recovery of human remains at the World Trade Center site.

City officials initially promised that the incident command plan would be completed by the end of last summer. Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta (search) said Monday he was "disappointed" the agreement remained incomplete.

City officials attribute the delay less to police and fire department discord than to the resignation of the city's emergency management commissioner in January and to changing requirements of the federal mandate.

Brooklyn State Supreme Court Justice Joseph F. Bruno, the city's fire commissioner from 1987 to 1990, takes over as emergency management commissioner this week. Through a spokesman, he declined to comment before taking office.

"We are satisfied that substantial progress has been made over the last several months and the remaining issues will be resolved shortly," said Ed Skyler, a spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg.