Joseph Pfeifer

Joseph Pfeifer

Adjunct Associate Professor of International and Public Affairs

Personal Details

Focus Areas: Crisis leadership, Climate change security, Global risk assessment, Disaster management and recovery

Joseph Pfeifer is an Adjunct Associate Professor in International Public Affairs and the Director of Crisis Leadership at the Columbia Climate School’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness. In his SIPA Capstone course on Climate Change Security, he discusses how climate change affects national and international security. The Capstone course examines climate risk, adaptive preparedness, crisis leadership, disaster response, humanitarian assistance, and community resilience. Pfeifer leads a research team of students to study Climate Security in the Indo-Pacific region, which encompasses half the earth’s surface. He also directs and teaches the SIPA Executive Education program on Leading with Impact. This course provides public and private sector managers with the skills for leading in various crises. He has been a guest lecturer in SIPA classes since 2006.

Pfeifer is a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, teaching several executive education programs on crisis leadership and leading research teams to examine the preparedness and response of international cities to extreme events. He is also a senior fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, teaching cadets at the U.S. Military Academy, a guest speaker at the Naval Postgraduate School, and a visiting instructor at Tsinghua University in Beijing. 

He has taught senior leaders worldwide about crisis leadership, disaster management, critical decision-making, cross-sector collaboration, and organizational resilience. He has talked with presidents, prime ministers, senators, mayors, other government officials, military generals, and community leaders. Pfeifer has testified in front of the U.S. Congress and spoke at the United Nations about the threats cities will face in the future. 

Pfeifer retired from the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) as an Assistant Chief and the founding director of FDNY’s Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness (New York Times). He was the first Chief at the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11, played a significant command role during Hurricane Sandy, and helped manage NYC’s Ebola Response efforts. While at FDNY, he served as the Chief of Counterterrorism and Emergency Preparedness, shaping strategic planning, interagency response, and innovative technologies for enhanced situational awareness. 

As a leading professional in crisis leadership, he has appeared in major news interviews and documentary films. He presented at national and international conferences, including the United Nations Global Congress of Victims of terrorism, the World Knowledge Forum, the National Guard Joint Senior Leader Conference, and the National Homeland Security Conference. He has conducted hundreds of simulations to test response capabilities, surge capacity, and coordination. 

Pfeifer has written widely and is the author of The New York Times bestseller Ordinary Heroes: A Memoir of 9/11. He holds Master’s Degrees from the Harvard Kennedy School, the Naval Postgraduate School, and Immaculate Conception. 



  • Master of Arts, Public Administration, Harvard Kennedy School, 2008
  • Master of Arts, Security Studies, Naval Postgraduate School, 2005
  • Master of Arts, Theology, Immaculate Conception Seminary, 1982
  • Bachelor of Arts, Psychology, Cathedral College, 1978

Honors & Awards

  • Inducted into France's Nation Order of Merit by the French Ambassador to the U.S. 2020 for work with the French Prime Minister, the Paris Fire Brigade, BRI Hostage Rescue, and Hospitals.
  • Pfeifer's fire gear from 9/11 is displayed at the Smithsonian Museum and his helmet at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.
  • Administrative Award for developing the Response to Ebola 2015
  • Fire Safety Director Award for innovative preparedness exercises with the private sector
  • International Victim of Terrorism, Courage Award, 2009 (Madrid) solidarity with victims of terrorism
  • FDNY's highest Administrative Medal, 2004, for creating the Department's First Strategic Plan
  • International Exemplary System in Government Award, 2002, for developing the GPS Recovery System used at the 9/11 WTC disaster (Featured in the New York Times & Fast Magazine)
  • FDNY Meritorious Acts for bravery and courage
  • WTC Survivor and Rescuer Medal for 9/11/01
  • Hurricane Sandy Responder Ribbon 10/29/12
  • Class "A" ribbon for bravery in rescuing an elderly woman trapped by fire
  • Class "B" ribbon for courage and initiative for delivering a baby in a blizzard and pre-hospital saves