For Big Trouble in the Big Apple, Call the ESU


For Big Trouble in the Big Apple, Call the ESU

By Valerie Amato, EMT Jun 29, 2018

When a particularly challenging emergency call comes in from New York City dispatchers—whether it’s an individual threatening to jump off the George Washington Bridge or a driver plowing a van through a crowd of innocent people on a bike path—it’s the NYPD Emergency Service Unit (ESU) that gets called to respond. Running the gamut of psychiatric, terrorist, and tactical and rescue calls, members of the ESU must be prepared for just about anything. 

The ESU is a 400-member tactical and rescue team that consists of medically trained personnel, including EMTs (the minimum training requirement), paramedics, and one physician assistant. Team members endure eight months of rigorous training designed to prepare them in multiple disciplines, primarily focusing on special weapons and tactics and technical rescue. Other areas include water rescue, mental health emergencies, suicidal jumpers, and hazardous-material incidents.

“The role of ESU in the NYPD is one of the most unique and valuable assets in NYPD Special Operations,” says Sgt. John J. Flynn, a paramedic and supervisor of the ESU’s tactical paramedics. “ESU members are tasked with handling countless assignments—from the most trivial to the most complex, from hostage or barricade situations to high-risk search warrants.” 

The team also provides patrol support in a variety of day-to-day and extraordinary circumstances that require their additional resources. “ESU members take great pride in the assistance they provide to fellow law enforcement officers,” Flynn says. 

The highly specialized training ESU members receive allows them to respond to other emergencies, such as animal control, high-angle rope rescues, WMD incidents, and building collapses. The unit also provides quick-reaction assets and counterassault teams, both of which are staffed with ESU tactical medics. 

“We’re a unit within the NYPD that specializes in rescue as well as tactics, so if you decide to climb a bridge…and want to take your own life, we’re the ones that’ll respond,” says NYPD Det. Andrew Bershad, NREMT-P, CIC, a tactical medic in the ESU. “We’ll climb the bridge, try to convince you to come down, and remove you safely.” 

The New York City subway system, which covers hundreds of miles, is another common location where people end their lives—a horrendous reality the ESU handles on a regular basis. “We’re the ones who will go down to the tracks and remove [the remains] so we can open up the pathways of transit again,” says Bershad. 

As new forms of terrorism emerge, with vans being turned into weapons and school shootings breeding copycats, the ESU must learn how to adapt to this rapidly changing environment.

“ESU conducts regular training and equips its members with the best equipment available to ensure its members are prepared for any challenges they face with the evolving terror threats,” Flynn says. “In response to the threat of simultaneous attacks or multiple incidents, the NYPD significantly expanded resources to provide more members trained and equipped to operate in tactical environments.”

Broad-Based Training

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Flynn attributes ESU’s history of successful responses to large-scale incidents both within and outside of New York City to its consistent training. To upkeep its readiness for mass-casualty incidents, ESU continuously works with city, state, and federal resources, including the ESU K9 unit as well as special operations assets from the harbor unit, aviation unit, and strategic response group, according to Flynn.
Bershad says the repetition of training helps members keep their cool during intense calls: “I think through every stressful situation you end up in, you resort back to quality training where you develop muscle memory and prepare for any situation that might cross your path.” 

Bershad also believes maintaining effective response tactics through training comes down to basic scene safety and situational awareness. “There needs to be heightened awareness of what’s going on. If you go back to scene safety in EMS 101, you [learn you] have to be aware of your surroundings,” he says. “I think both tactically and medically, it has to be looked at in the same manner as we expect more mass-casualty incidents.”

Preparation for large-scale incidents cannot be restricted within ESU or any one agency—agencies preparing together is the key to success.

“ESU members are at the forefront of the collaboration between the NYPD and FDNY,” says Flynn. ESU maintains a strong relationship with other agencies to guarantee a cohesive interagency response during critical incidents by conducting exercises and trainings together. Their close training to ensure preparation for future disasters and terrorist incidents became an even higher priority after the attacks of September 11, 2001. 

“ESU serves as the primary tactical team making initial entry into high-threat environments and facilitates insertion of rescue task force (RTF) personnel,” says Flynn. “New York City’s RTF/active-shooter response model incorporates personnel from the NYPD Special Operations and Counterterrorism bureaus as well as FDNY firefighters and EMS providers. ESU members are also involved in working with FDNY counterparts to collectively find solutions and recommend policies and procedures for response to terror attacks.”

In addition to tactical support at all large-scale incidents and events in New York City, ESU provides countersniper teams and armored vehicles for operations in hot and warm zones. Providing protection for all first responders in an MCI (whether terrorist attack, natural disaster, or just an accident) is a key mission of ESU. 

First responders should keep in mind that in this day and age, the familiar (and safe, depending on location) environments in which they operate could quickly switch from secure to austere. “It’s part of the risk of what we do,” Bershad says. “Something as simple as a train station or a bike path could become an active crime scene with increased potential of further injury to the rescuers responding.” 

Care on Scene

In addition to force protection, ESU provides medical care for its members on scene. “Our job is to provide medical support for law enforcement officers operating in the hot zone,” says Bershad. 

Ultimately city EMS personnel are responsible for patient care, but ESU provides a safer environment for them to provide it and transport patients. 

“With the uniformed EMS service already in place, we provide the protection for them and assist in whatever manner we can,” Bershad says. 

With ESU’s shared background of medical training with FDNY EMS personnel, the two groups have demonstrated quality coordination and mutual aid during critical events.

“ESU members have always maintained a great working relationship with EMS providers,” says Flynn. “The training ESU members receive as EMTs allows them to regularly assist and work well with EMS providers in New York City.”  

Sidebar: The Civilian’s Job: Help Them Help You

While ESU and other emergency response agencies are capable of swiftly responding to an MCI, civilians must have their own safety plans in place before first responders can come to their aid. Every minute matters when taking action (or not) to help fellow citizens during a critical incident. 

“Schools and other entities should regularly assess their vulnerabilities and resources and work with first responders to be better prepared for mass-casualty incidents,” Flynn says.

Workplaces should also be equipped with basic lifesaving medical supplies and provide proper medical training for employees so they can take care of victims while waiting for first responders to arrive.

“A solid plan is critical,” says Flynn. “Whether it’s specific resources, drills, tabletop exercises, walk-throughs or joint training, the partnership between schools and other entities and their local first responders is vital.”

Valerie Amato is assistant editor at EMS World. Contact her at 

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