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USAR firefighter at 9/11 talks communication challenges

September 11 exposed the primitiveness of our communication systems, here’s a look at what it was like at Ground Zero and what’s being done


(Photo/Mike Worrell)

By Mike Worrell

On Sept. 11, 2001, I worked for the Phoenix Fire Department and was a member of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Urban Search and Rescue system, Arizona Task Force-1 (AZTF-1). I was at home getting ready for work when my wife told me a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

My first thought was that it was a private plane and weather had to be a factor. I imagined a picture of the World Trade Center covered in fog and with a plane in the side. I recalled the bomber hitting the Empire State Building in the 1940s.

My wife then said I needed to come look, and what I saw didn’t make sense – a clear day, an airliner? A few minutes later the second aircraft struck the south tower. At this point, I realized I would most likely be going to New York. Then the aircraft struck the Pentagon.

My first reaction was to grab my bag pre-packed with all of the gear I would need for a deployment. Second, I headed down to the Phoenix Fire Department training academy, our designated rally point.

My mind was racing as it always does before a deployment, including thoughts about radio frequencies, interoperability, what teams will be with us and how am I going to get good communications in such a challenging urban environment.

I also thought about my friends at the FDNY.

We had just done training together in Orange County, Calif. As we went our separate ways, we said goodbye like firefighters do, saying “See you at the big one.”

All circuits busy on 9/11

During my drive I tried to get information using my flip-phone. The phone lines were busy and I couldn’t get through. Our notification system was the phone tree method and I’m sure they were in use making team activation calls.

After arriving at the training academy, there was a flurry of activity. AZTF-1 members were checking in, cars were being stored, specialized gear was being issued, medical checks occurred and all of the gear was palletized. The goal was to be wheels up in 6 hours with 80 personnel and 60,000 pounds of gear.

My work focused on getting checked in and getting the communications cache ready. I was tasked with getting a call through to Washington for our task force leader. He had tried many times but was unable to get through, receiving an “all circuits are busy” message.

We ended up using GETS (Government Emergency Telephone System) to get through to D.C. I had my own phone tree of communications specialists that I was contacting to coordinate communications frequencies and investigate prospective communications sites.

I reached out to a friend from Los Angeles County Fire Department who had been assigned as the communications leader for the FEMA Incident Support Team. He started feeding me the information I needed to get our communications equipment ready.

Military aircraft were not readily available to transport us, and it was decided to keep us on site until an aircraft was assigned. As we waited, I received word that FDNY Chief Ray Downey had died. Late Sept. 12, we received confirmation that we would deploy in a few days.

On scene at the World Trade Center

When we arrived in New York, I thought I was mentally prepared for what I would see. I recalled arriving in Oklahoma City and seeing the Murrah building.

But when I saw the World Trade Center, my heart sank and I was overwhelmed by the amount of devastation and loss of life. The once impressive World Trade Center was reduced to twisted metal, rubble and what looked like a pile of pick-up sticks.

Fires still burned below the rubble, smoke and dust filled the air, the ground shook as heavy equipment moved and firefighters and rescue workers on the pile looked like ants. The smells, sounds, vibrations, smoke, darkness and the expansive damage was difficult to comprehend.

I turned my thoughts to analyzing the situation and developing a plan to deploy communications equipment to support operations on the pile. We cooperated with the other teams to gain access to the Western Union building for use as a repeater site to provide a communications link to the work site. Due to the large number of responding teams, we were limited to a single talk channel and access to the FEMA Incident Support Team Command Channel.

We were a highly trained team that ended up using very primitive tools for debris removal. The bucket and glove hands became the most widely used tools. We also used search cameras on long poles that allowed the operator to view void spaces. AZTF-1 spent two weeks there along with many other FEMA USAR teams and our brothers from the FDNY.

Communication technology

Looking back, communications have improved, but we still have a long way to go. Fifteen years ago, there was no National Interoperability Field Operations Guide.

Today, we work harder to have interoperability plans in place if the events escalate to the point where we need assistance from other jurisdictions.

There are many radio systems deployed that make interoperability difficult. Trunked systems require system keys and the correct radio feature sets to operate. Some systems have proprietary capabilities that may not work with radios from different manufacturers.

We need to look forward to new technologies, such as the FirstNet network, that will provide additional communications capabilities.

It is difficult to imagine a system surviving the 9/11 attacks. Having a system designed for public safety that maintained at least some coverage and prioritized public safety communications would have been very valuable.

The working environment was harsh and we needed equipment ruggedized for public safety use. We are seeing advancements in ruggedization and in increased battery life. Work cycles of more than 12 hours require dependable batteries and charging systems.

Data processing

The ability to share and collect data will change with FirstNet. On 9/11, paper maps were widely used, and data collection and transfer were manual processes.

The data collection occurred at the end of the 12-hour operational period, meaning data collected at the beginning of an operational period wouldn’t be processed until 12 to 18 hours later.

Imagine having instantaneous data exchange and being able to share information readily. Applications that assist in planning, deployment and accountability will increase efficiency and safety when incidents occur.

The FirstNet network, including devices infrastructure, applications, quality of service, priority and pre-emption, security and coverage will provide us with capabilities needed to respond to incidents more efficiently.

Try to imagine all of the information being exchanged across the U.S. that day, and also think of all the information that was delayed or did not get exchanged because of congestion.

About the author

Mike Worrell is the FirstNet senior fire services advisor. He was previously with the Phoenix Fire Department where he served for 29 years, most recently as the technical services division chief. Worrell was also a member of the Public Safety Advisory Committee to FirstNet, a member of the National Urban Search and Rescue Incident Support Team, and a qualified communications unit leader and communications technician instructor. Prior to joining the Phoenix Fire Department, he was an electronics technician in the U.S. Navy, Submarine Service.