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Life After 9/11

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-09-11
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PSAP Management column originally Published in our Jan/Feb 2002 issue.

Unlike many of my staff, I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination of President Kennedy. I can tell you where I was when I heard about the death of his brother Bobby and Martin Luther King. I had already been in management for several years when I watched the Challenger explode into a series of fiery pinwheels that spun into a winter sea.  Like most of my particular generation – the “baby boomers” – I shared a common bond of events and experiences. None of these, however, quite prepared me for September the eleventh.

My parents had long told me stories of another date “that lived in infamy.” On December 7, 1941 they were watching a movie when the house lights came up and the national anthem began to play.  A little more than a year later – on my mother’s 26th birthday – my father departed for a tour of duty in the Pacific.  Now, sixty years later, Pearl Harbor has, in a matter of minutes, become the second most serious attack against American soil.  And, in those same brief, horrible moments yet another generation had gained its defining moment.

While the general public beheld the unfolding events at the Pentagon and World Trade Center as tragic, those of us in public safety saw an even more disturbing picture. Most, if not all, of us immediately recognized the magnitude of these losses from our particularly parochial viewpoint. The graphic images from the Twin Towers left little doubt that hundreds who had gone to help were among the thousands who were now beyond human assistance. So, what have we learned from all of this? How are we as a nation and as a profession different now? How do we view life after 9/11?

First, to paraphrase Francis Scott Key, we learned that as long as our flag was still there, everything was going to be fine. The stars and stripes has re-emerged as a powerful image, with photos of New York firefighters stirring memories of Marines on Iwo Jima.  We learned, too, that America is not an island. We are not immune from the terror that we have come to associate with distant shores, nor are we alone in our battle against it. The outpouring of concern and support from around the world – especially from nations historically considered to be our enemies – has been heartwarming. We also learned how generous we are, as a people. Millions of dollars have been collected for the affected families, and the donation of all manner of supplies – especially blood – must surely have set a new record.

In a narrower sense, we have come to see just how frightened all of this has made many of our citizens simply through the escalation in our call volumes. I suspect that each and every one of us has a story to tell about “terrorist activity” and “Anthrax” that illustrates the depth of this reaction and concern.  In many instances, too, we have unfortunately seen how poorly prepared we are collectively to deal with these issues. We watch as Federal officials advise the public to report all suspicious activity to 9-1-1 without providing further instructions on the particular classes of concern.  We stand by as plans are developed without input from the agencies bearing the major brunt of the public unrest- the communications centers. And we hope as legislation is introduced that it brings with it funding for better housing, equipping, and training telecommunicators who are always the true first responders.

We also know that, for a short time at least, our nation sat in stunned silence glued to their televisions as if part of a communal ceremony. We know this because our phones grew strangely quiet in the days and hours immediately following September 11, but before the Anthrax took to the mail.  And, we have also had many things we might have taken for granted reaffirmed. We always knew that public safety was a dangerous profession. I think no further confirmation is now necessary. We always knew that telecommunicators could handle almost anything. We can add to that list taking calls from hijacked airliners and from high-rise buildings just seconds before they collapse. And we should not neglect the experience of watching the Pentagon burn not on CNN but from right outside your PSAP window. Nor can we ever forget the mettle shown by the dispatchers of FDNY who had to cope with losing more firefighters in one day than their department traditionally loses in a century. 

On the pragmatic side, we see agencies brushing off their Y2K plans, thankful that many of the SOPs developed for that non-event have some bearing in our new reality. It seems, too, that we can be sure, no matter what, it only becomes a matter of time before life gets back to almost normal and we once again begin to deal with the daily problems of life that evidence themselves in our usual assortment of calls. Somehow even those incidents that were once considered to be high priority don’t seem as important as they used to. Still, part of our challenge for the future is to continue to provide responsive service to all our callers, and appropriate training and support for our personnel. That’s something that wasn’t changed by 9/11, and, hopefully, never will be.

Barry Furey has been involved in public safety for more than 40 years, having managed 9-1-1 centers in four states. A life member of APCO International, he is the current director of the Raleigh-Wake County (NC) Emergency Communications Center.

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