Sept. 11, 2001, changed the way so many of us travel, think about privacy, and teach history to our children.
But for emergency responders across the country, it shook the very foundations of how they do their daily work.
With 9/11 came an awareness among emergency responders that attacks could happen on American soil, and along with that awareness came a rethinking of preparedness and response.
“The mission changed,” said Chief Robert Loomer, who was serving as a fire captain in Maynard, Mass., at the time of the attacks. “People now think of us as first responders. When it’s terrorism, when it’s on your own soil, who’s going to show up first? Cops and firefighters.”
He said emergency responders in the U.S. became “foot soldiers.”
Chief Robert Irving, who served his first day as chief in Wayland on Sept. 20, 2001, said the immediate reaction in the emergency response community was “to buy stuff.”
“We never carried gas masks before,” Irving said. “Now we have suits we could put on in case there was an attack with anthrax or any kind of chemical.”
At the federal level, the attacks on Sept. 11 led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. It has, among other things, made available new grant money so local police and fire departments could purchase the now-needed equipment.
“The government realized it needed to better prepare us,” Loomer said.
For firefighters, he said, 9/11 reawakened an awareness of equipment that had been mostly forgotten, or at least not kept up-to-date, since the end of the Cold War.
“The history of emergency preparedness in this country, it ebbs and flows,” said Loomer, citing the old Geiger counters, relics of Cold War fears, that many fire departments had in 2001. They suddenly seemed egregiously out of date.
“Today we carry detection devices, meters that can detect everything from radiation to hazardous chemicals,” Loomer said.
For him, the changes in the emergency response community following 9/11 fall into three categories: Equipment, education and intelligence.
Loomer said it became obvious after 9/11 that firefighters and police officers needed tools to communicate with one another in a crisis situation. Radios with interoperability – the capacity to function on multiple frequencies and with numerous departments – became critical pieces of equipment. with interoperability earlier this year with grant money provided in part by the Department of Homeland Security.
Along similar lines, Irving said that the sharing of resources in the emergency response community “gained momentum.” Clearinghouses such as the National Incident Management System, which provides systematic training and response steps for communities and emergency responders, as well as the Metropolitan Law Enforcement Council (MetLEC) in the Boston area were formed.
But the resources available are only as good as the training given to the people who use them.
“We’re trained now more to expect the unexpected – that anything can happen anywhere,” Irving said, adding that some of this training became prevalent following the Columbine shootings in 1999.
Loomer agreed, adding that the lessons learned from 9/11 are useful not just in the midst of terrorist attacks, but during any mass crisis or event.
“What happened three years later?” he asked. “Katrina – another major urban center completely overwhelmed.”
A key lesson, Loomer said, is that emergency responders now watch out for a secondary event before rushing into a crisis situation.
On Sept. 11, firefighters responded immediately when the north tower of the World Trade Center was struck. When the second tower was struck about 20 minutes later, and then both towers fell, 343 firefighters lost their lives.
“They did their job with total valor,” Loomer said, adding that emergency personnel learned about having better security at a location and about knowing where personnel is at all times. “But now we know you don’t want to get sucked in.”
As for intelligence, Irving explained that "fusion centers" emerged after 9/11. They began as a means of disseminating information about potential terrorist threats quickly and efficiently throughout a given area, but have since evolved to circulate other information including Amber Alerts.
“Sometimes it takes a tragedy to point out where our shortcomings are,” Loomer said. “Now we realize that this is real, and it continues to be real. We live in a new world today where terrorism is [real].”
Beyond the logistical changes that resulted, the mentality of emergency responders changed, both Loomer and Irving said.
“I think we all are more suspicious, since that occurred, of unusual activity,” Irving said, adding that people in general are more apt to speak up if they notice something out of the ordinary.
Loomer said arson used to be the worst act with which firefighters had to cope. Now it’s terrorism.
“Your life changed because you have to take your sneakers off at the airport,” Loomer said. “My life changed because every time that bell rings, I gotta think about what might have happened.
“We don’t go out the door every five minutes for building fires like we used to, but we’ve got more things to think about. Terrorism is just something else on our plate, and it will be forever.”
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