Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Before FEMA: Arthur Woods of the NYPD

Early in the Twentieth Century, one man showed the rest of the country how to organize millions of people to handle disaster. He was Arthur Woods, commissioner of the New York Police Department (NYPD) from 1914 through 1917. The effort he led in the raucous and dangerous city of New York shows how emergencies can be managed effectively at the local level.

It began during his first months in office. Fearing that war in Europe was going to lap onto American shores, Woods ordered the department to prepare for catastrophe. Disaster response and rescue work had never been a formal part of police work before Woods' arrival, but he saw it as the best way to change his department's image. This was at the cost of some friction with the Fire Department, which saw the police as tromping on their emergency-services turf.

The disaster-preparation work that Woods mobilized was more thorough than anything contemplated by today's state or federal emergency responders. Plans were written up to handle mass uprisings on the scale of the 1863 draft riots; all of Brooklyn burning down; the most powerful hurricane ever recorded on the East Coast; and a direct attack by German battleships and saboteurs. How so? The NYPD identified all telephone and telegraph exchanges so officers could guard key equipment from German saboteurs. In case the exchanges were blown up officers were trained and equipped with semaphore signals. That would require standing on rooftops, so officers got ready for that by locating roofs with the best sight-lines.

The NYPD took stock of all buildings that held supplies of clothes, tools, food, and fuel. These inventories were so detailed that index cards showed where all bakeries were located and how much bread each could produce in a day if supplied with a specific quantity of flour.

What if the civilian bakers ran off? Woods had plans for that, too: he sent hundreds of NYPD officers to learn about high-production baking at Army kitchens.

The NYPD mapped churches and schools to provide sleeping quarters for 50,000 refugees, then went on to identify sources of lumber and canvas to erect tent cities if the flood of displaced people filled even that.

In case police officers were called off to do battle with the Germans, Woods trained and equipped a 12,000-man (and -woman) Home Defense League to stand in for the officers. Here's a link to a newspaper page showing 500 clerks of the B. Altman department store training for the HDL by doing calisthenics on the roof.

The Home Defense League, which was probably the best publicized of Woods' efforts, drew from all walks of life for its volunteers, from street sweepers to bankers and stockbrokers. Society women signed up their automobiles for service and offered themselves as drivers, in case of war. It was no tea party: the women donned khaki uniforms and couldn't graduate till they demonstrated how to carry out major repairs, down to grinding valves, troubleshooting carburetors, and disassembling magnetos.

It was a stunning turnaround in civic life for a city that had mostly given up on its police by the time he took office. Who was this man? After graduating from Harvard, Woods started his career as a teacher and schoolmaster at the Groton School (FDR was among his pupils). Then he worked as a newspaper reporter at the New York Evening Sun covering new types of detective work in the U.S. and abroad. He served a short term as deputy commissioner for the NYPD, then went off to Mexico to run a mine in the mountains.

When Mayor John Purroy Mitchel of the Fusion Party won office in a wave of revulsion about the Tammany political machine, Mitchel appointed Woods as police commissioner after two other candidates turned the post down. Mitchel told Woods to take whatever approach he thought best to straighten up the department. Even crime reporters who knew Woods and liked him personally held little hope. No previous commissioner, including Teddy Roosevelt, had been able to achieve more than temporary fixes.

Instead, within three years (and in addition to all his disaster preparation) Woods turned the NYPD into a model of crime-fighting. Woods launched an attack on robbery, pickpockets, gambling, prostitution, and shakedowns. He took on, and dispatched the extortion ring called the Black Hand. Nobody had been able to attack the roots of it before -- a valiant attempt had cost police Lt. Joseph Petrosino his life in 1909 -- but in three years of Woods' administration the rate of extortion bombings dropped by 92 percent.

He valued prevention above all, and to that end he enlisted thousands of children from the tenements into a Junior Police corps, and put a social worker in each troubled precinct. He closed off streets so children could play safely after school. He installed a basketball court at each police station for use by the neighborhood and police officers. Officers were told to get fit or get out.

After Mayor Mitchel lost the election in 1917, Woods left office to serve in the U.S. Army. Despite the short term in office his influence lingers. The reason the NYPD excels in heavy rescue today traces back to Arthur Woods, and his determination to change the police image from "copper to helper."

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