When New York City police officers and firefighters erupted into a tremendous on-ice brawl earlier this month during a tied charity hockey game, it wasn’t the first time their members have fought.
The New York City Police Department (NYPD) and the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) have a history of tension off the ice, stemming from turf wars.
Some of the disputes are comical, while others are more violent. In 1988, Mayor Ed Koch asked the fire and police commissioners to shake hands after they argued about which department had better scuba divers, according to The New York Times.
More than a decade later, 12 protesting firefighters were arrested for allegedly assaulting police officers over cuts to the number of personnel permitted at ground zero after 9/11. And when a burglar became stuck in a Queens chimney in 2003, a police officer allegedly shoved and injured a firefighter during an argument over access to the dual crime/rescue scene.
Those feuds stem from overlapping responses at emergency scenes, the main source of historical tension between the two departments. A turf battle between the departments began in the 1980s, when fires were on the decline and the FDNY started responding to other emergency scenes traditionally left to the NYPD, according to The New York Times.
“The NYPD and the FDNY have more overlapping services than most urban police and fire departments,” John Buntin wrote in Governing magazine in 2005. “Both are tradition-bound and aggressive about their turf. The result has been a uniquely tense relationship.”
Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s administration, which was in power until 2001, sought to improve coordination by more clearly specifying which responding agencies would have command over various emergency situations, according to Governing magazine. He also created an Office of Emergency Management to coordinate between agencies at the scene.
Preliminary findings of the independent commission investigating the 9/11 terrorist attacks, published by the New York Times in 2004, said a rivalry between the departments may have negatively impacted their emergency responses:
“The mayor’s [Rudolph W. Giuliani] creation of the Office of Emergency Management and the issuance of his Incident Command Directive were attempts to address the longstanding rivalry between the N.Y.P.D. and the F.D.N.Y. This rivalry has been acknowledged by every witness we have asked about it. Some characterised the more extreme manifestations of the rivalry — fistfights at the scenes of emergencies, for instance — as the actions of ‘a few knuckleheads.’ Some described the rivalry as the result of healthy organizational pride and competition. Others told us that the problem has escalated over time and has hampered the ability of the city to respond well in emergency situations.”
The final 9/11 Commission Report made a disturbing mention about how tensions on both sides may have cost lives during the terrorist attacks:
“One instance in which the FDNY/NYPD rivalry may have had an impact on the total fatalities was the alleged failure of ESU [the NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit] officers descending past at least two firefighters after 9:59 in the North Tower to share their evacuation instructions. … [A]ccording to one of the ESU officers and one of the firefighters in the North Tower, at least some FDNY personnel were unwilling to take evacuation orders from police that morning.”
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