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Heffernan Takes on UN Role

After working more than 20 years as a firefighter on the streets of New York, Noel Heffernan’s new role has a bit more international flavor.

Heffernan retired from the New York City Fire Department and is now working at the United Nations as the fire, safety and hazardous materials officer. The job requires thoughtful planning and an emphasis on training while occasionally navigating the cultural subtleties of international diplomacy.

The master’s degree program at the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security, which Heffernan completed in December 2011, has been invaluable in preparing him for this task.

"I think the one thing I use the most (from CHDS coursework) is the collaboration skills," Heffernan said. "With the United Nations it’s all about collaboration. It’s challenging but it’s enjoyable."

A high priority is developing standard operating practices for emergency response for U.N. host countries in Geneva, Nairobi and Vienna as well as emergency medical technician training, coordinating operational plans through working committees and panels. A hurdle is implementing consistent U.S.-style standards in an international setting.

"We’re trying to get standardized level of support skills for all security officers," Heffernan said.

There is also more traditional fire service work. Heffernan reviews and approves building plans to ensure they meet fire codes as well as directing operational matters such as implementing a new type of fire retarding foam concentrate, utilizing gas and carbon dioxide monitors and even switching to using golf carts for initial fire containment in tightly constructed underground garages. He also supervises the U.N. Fire Unit on a rotational basis, employee safety and training as well as serving as operations chief of the Crisis Management Group which is activated during emergencies.

Another major task is overseeing storage and use of hazardous materials while also implementing response policies. Security alerts are commonplace as the U.N. is a high-profile target both in symbolism and because of the constant presence of international diplomats, Heffernan noted.

He took the job as the U.N. embarked on a $1.9 billion renovation project on its 40-story headquarters, which necessitated temporarily relocating some 4,700 staffers to 16 locations around Manhattan. The headquarters is something of a subterranean city unto itself.

As part of the Department of Safety and Security, Heffernan must coordinate among the New York police and fire departments, the United States government as well as the U.N. itself.

"One of the challenges is dealing with international people with such great diversity," he noted. "Not only am I dealing with local resources in New York City, I am dealing with other countries."

Heffernan said his CHDS was a helpful complement to his Pace University law degree.

"CHDS opened my eyes up to doing other things with my legal degree," he said. "I decided I wanted to stay in the security field. One thing I really apply is that I look at things from a strategic perspective."