9/11: The game changer

Reflections on the effects that fateful day had then and now on the fire service

What an incredible late summer day. The sky was picture perfect, a deep blue without a single cloud to be seen anywhere over Norfolk, Va. 

Being the second Tuesday in September, that morning was set aside for the monthly labor-management meeting. We got underway as we always did, with an exchange of pleasantries across the oversized, handmade dinner table at Fire Station 9.

I always looked forward to these meetings because of the rich discussions that would follow and the issues that were brought forward were typically significant.

Before we were able to start exchanging information on how to improve the department, someone had mentioned that a plane had smacked into the World Trade Center.

I thought that a small aircraft perhaps a Cessna 172 went out of control and accidentally crashed into a very large obstacle. My second thought was that maybe the pilot had a medical crises (most likely a severe acute heart attack) and lost control of this small plane.  

My thoughts and prayers were with the plane and building occupants, but like most other emergencies, this is a local event and I needed to focus on the labor-management process in my town. 

Worse than imagined
The committee was working when one of the firefighters turned on a television. As we discussed departmental issues, we all had one eye planted on the New York news coverage. 

A short time later, United Airlines flight 175 struck the south tower. The situation became crystal clear: America was under attack and both jets were intentionally flown into these skyscrapers that were populated with thousands of workers and visitors. 

It was time to postpone the meeting and make a beeline to fire headquarters to determine what actions would be required of our fire department. We had to assess the significance of this attack to Norfolk and consider the implications to the largest naval base in the world.

As we reviewed the emergency operations plans, the news continued to get worse. At 9:38 a.m. American Airlines flight 77 crashed into the west side of the Pentagon — a large military target was now in the line of fire. 

Soon after the Pentagon news, the city manager called all department heads to report to the emergency operations center (EOC). We reviewed the emergency operations plan and its terrorism annex. The EOC computer projection screen filled with real-time situation status and resource status information. 

This was going to be a long and unusual night. This was going to be something that none had experienced before; this situation would become a true game changer for the fire and rescue service.

Request for help
As the EOC was buzzing with planning and operational activities, the request came in for six or eight NFR members. They were being activated by FEMA to help staff Virginia Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 2 being sent to work at the Pentagon, which is less than 200 miles from Norfolk.

We brought the family members of those being deployed into our union hall to brief them as to what to expect and any other facts that we could share. This meeting turned out to be very positive, in that this was a very stressful time for everyone that had a loved one going into harm's way.

Let's face it, if the terrorist could ram airplanes into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a be spoiled in a field over Pennsylvania en route to the White House, when will they be back to cause more destruction? 

Request not to help
As the USAR team made great progress over the next week or so, the other members were chomping at the bit to go to New York to help. The word was being broadcast from everywhere that unless you were formally requested by FDNY; do not respond to the World Trade Center.

Many stories surfaced that departments were sending unrequested people by the busloads to New York and that they were getting to work on debris removal. As this internal tension continued, I asked the IAFF Local 68 president to be a part of video appeal to the members, explaining the need to follow the rules of deployment. 

One of the strongest impressions that I hold from that time is our firefighters nearly demanding to be used in some capacity. The members were frustrated that there was so much to do and they could not help with any of the heavy lifting. 

Everyone understood the need for good order at these large-scale incidents. However, they wanted to help in anyway that they could. This could have been the cause of friction between the troops and the bosses, but that was the furthest from the truth.

The bosses were also chomping at the bit to go and understood the frustration of watching the action from the sidelines.

We had to make sure that we keep good order and not allow freelance responders to go to either location. However, we did not want to dampen the American spirit of our members. 

This was a very fine line to walk, but we held several events, such as memorial services and blood drives, that helped relieve some of the stress that the non-response order was causing our troops.  

It was easy to get a sense of what our county must have been going through on Dec. 7, 1941.  

White powder scares
In a few short weeks after the attack on America, Norfolk was overwhelmed by white-powder incident responses. In early November, a hazardous materials alarm was dispatched to the cruise ship terminal for white powder discovered aboard a ship that was to set sail in a few hours. 

Being a home port for some of the world's cruise lines was a new economic venture for the city and there was a lot of pressure to get the ships out to sea on time to keep the guests happy. Because of the newness of the cruise ship facility and that the call was aboard a large passenger ship, I decided to respond to this alarm. 

About 30 minutes into this Level A unknown hazardous materials entry, a second white powder call was dispatched. Now my focus had to change to worrying about obtaining the resources that were needed to handle two unknown hazardous materials alarms simultaneously and to be able to protect the rest of our residents. 

White powder calls were popping up all over the country, and Norfolk had a few more on this day. It was evident that we had to change our response policy to the white powder scares in a way that protected our responders, but did not put the fire department out of business checking the chemical composition of the white powder that was discovered, let's say, in a bakery. 

A lot of planning would go into developing a logical and defendable policy as to how to properly respond to this newly identified terrorist threat. After dozens more white powder responses, the department became highly capable of determining what was a low-level threat as compared to true targets of opportunity. 

Firefighters had to make the kinds of decisions and process operational clues that were left to our police counterparts before Sept. 11.  

Training and preparation
The world was quickly changing as it related to street-level operations, and a lot to training and preparation that would be accomplished. The federal government developed new emergency operations training. The Urban Area Security Initiative grants helped to ensure that America's largest cities had some of the resources needed to be ready for the next attack.

There remains the need for improved scheduled-events planning and intelligence information gathering.

What a great career opportunity and experience that President Obama's inauguration turned out to be for the DCFD command staff. It was the largest single special security event in our nation's history. Estimates placed the crowd at about 2.4 million people.

The planning process took well over 12 months to complete with many approvals being required. The D.C. Fire Department was fortunate enough to have a great staff that had the capabilities and experience to complete such a major planning document. 

After Sept. 11, the terrorist threat to disrupt a major American event is a real possibility. Therefore, all departments must be able to develop and be a major part of the public safety plan that involves their community. 

At a minimum they must know where to turn for help and advice on how to develop a comprehensive operational plan. This would be a great course topic for the National Fire Academy or the United States Fire Administration to develop and present. 

The conjoined issue that must be resolved is the need for senior officers to possess and maintain a Department of Homeland Security secret clearance. During the year planning process for the presidential inauguration, I attended about 10 meetings that required a federal clearance.

There are several case studies where the police agency did not include their fire service counterparts in sharing gathered intelligence. One of the most notable was the threat of the sarin gas attack on Disneyland in California, April 22, 1995.

President Clinton said, "There was one recent incident with which I was intimately familiar, which involved a quick and secret deployment of a major effort of FBI and FEMA and Public Health Service and Army personnel because we had a tip of a possible terrorist incident which, thank goodness, did not materialize, but we went to the place and we were ready, we were ready to try to prevent it, and if it occurred, we were ready to respond."

If my memory servers me correctly, when asked why didn't the police notify the fire department, the response was something like they didn't think about that.

The fire service needs to be a key player in the development, dissemination and use of anti-terrorist intelligence in their community, and cannot be overlooked. We will not be invited or trusted until our leadership team possess basic DHS security clearance documents. This will be a major burden, but it is a necessary one.

The fire-rescue service needs to get into the business of developing better operational plans and being a part of the intelligence-gathering process.

Finally, we have to continue to demand that federal funding sources, such as UASI, keeps providing the resources needed to purchase anti-terrorism response related equipment and street-level training. Take a look at the various Homeland Security Leadership courses that are available and make a commitment to attend at least one in the next 12 months.

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