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A bad day in London: 9/11 from afar

I will never forget how warm and understanding the British were to the loss of so many Americans and first responders


AP Photo/Max Nash
Coldstream Guards stand at attention at Buckingham Palace on Sept. 13, 2001, during a special Changing of the Guard, ordered by Queen Elizabeth II in honor of the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

By Chief Glenn Gaines
Acting U.S. Fire Administrator

My wife and I were traveling in Great Britain on September 11, 2001. We were part of a tour group and had stopped for the day at a bed and breakfast along the coast of Wales.

After taking an afternoon run, I returned to my room and turned on CNN International to see for the first time what millions of people had been watching — the upper levels of both towers of the Trade Center and a portion of the Pentagon in flames.

Later, we heard the results of the heroic efforts of those on Flight 93 and the crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Among the travelers was the executive vice president of Van Heusen Company, Inc. His son worked in Trade Center Building Seven. Many others on the tour also had relatives and best friends in Manhattan. Thankfully, all relatives and friends associated with the tour group survived.

We continued our tour into London and found that our hotel was located adjacent to the U. S. Embassy. We observed a line of Londoners stretching for blocks and soon learned that they were there to sign a book of condolences offered by order of the Prime Minister of England.

‘We love New York’
Many heartfelt remembrances and tributes were left at the site including “We Love New York” T-shirts, and New York Fire Department patches along with pictures of the site.

My wife Linda and I attended a memorial service on September 11. The British were most cordial and expressed sincere sympathy to each of the U. S. members of our London tour.

I will never forget how warm and understanding the British were to the loss of so many Americans and first responders.

At the time of the incidents in New York City, at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, I was employed as a contract instructor for the National Fire Academy and had recently retired as fire chief of Fairfax County, Virginia.

As I and other fire service professionals from across world watched the media coverage of the towers burning, we knew there were firefighters in those buildings.

We could not begin to comprehend the sheer numbers of fire service personnel who would ultimately be lost. I could not imagine how an organization could withstand such a catastrophic loss of personnel including their fire chief and many of their most prized and important leaders.

The strength of the New Yorkers and the resilience of the FDNY is a testament to all those who labored, planned, prepared their organization, and held themselves to such a high standard.

How our profession has changed
Ten years later, our profession has changed. Most of the change has occurred in large, high-risk areas of the country. Federal funds have been sent to at-risk fire and EMS departments across the country due in part to the recognition of the vital role the fire and EMS services provide during catastrophic incidents,

Recently, we saw the benefits of this investment in the fire service in Joplin, Missouri, where a severe tornado struck their city. Taking advantage of training, equipment, and governmental funding, fire and EMS personnel were able to manage much of the incident with local and regional resources without a large Federal response.

I am not sure that would have been possible ten years ago. Continued investment in fire and EMS training, equipment, and national and state support for local and regional resources will pay big dividends in keeping loss of life, property, and government cost at a minimum.

The American fire service’s knowledge of the National Incident Management System has vastly improved. However, we must be able to demonstrate that we can organize and move a large contingent of well disciplined, equipped, and trained firefighters into a disaster area without harming local mutual aid plans.

I know that the need for this capability is questioned. Some believe fires are a local problem and should be handled there. I agree that a fire emergency is a local response until we are faced with a federally-declared disaster.

However, I believe that we can find a way to continue to work closely with our communities to help them with trained personnel when they are in desperate need.

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