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Internal Politics: Lessons Learned on The Pile

Author: Dave Larton

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-09-11
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Originally Published in our Jan/Feb 2002 issue. 

You've all seen the pictures on television, in newspapers, or in other media, all showing the devastation of what was once called the World Trade Center.  What you haven't heard about was the relationship between the New York rescuers and the teams sent from throughout the country to help perform Search and Rescue operations at Ground Zero, and some of the unique assignments that were given to them during their deployment in New York.  On September 18, 2001, I responded with California Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 3, as a Communications Specialist.  What are some of the lessons we learned there, that we could make use of in our own agencies?



One of the largest lessons we learned there was: be flexible.  During the two weeks we were in New York, the Incident Action Plan was changed 41 times.  During a disaster operation, the plan will literally change by the minute as conditions change, and responders must be prepared to roll with those administrative punches.  Responders find themselves working in a foreign environment, with unfamiliar surroundings, with people they've never seen before.  While we may feel comfortable sitting behind our own consoles, it's an entirely different situation when we are playing in someone else's sandbox.  Emergency workers need to bring a big bag of diplomacy, tact, and flexibility with them when they respond into some else's jurisdiction.  Remember that you are an ambassador of your own agency, and you will be reflecting that same agency in all of your words, deeds and actions. 

That same sense of flexibility extends to what your mission will be during your response.  Although I deployed originally as a Communications Specialist, I found myself doing a variety of other functions that had nothing to do with radios.  One day I was loading trucks, the next day I was washing task force uniforms with two of our dog handlers.  What is important is that, whatever you do, your most important assignment is to support the overall mission of the team.  One common expression in New York was: “find a need, and fill it.”  If there's a job to be done, jump in and do it.  Whether it's at the World Trade Center or in your own dispatch center, don't be afraid to take on new responsibilities as the situation changes.  The people who get responded, the people who are given the toughest assignments, are the same people who support the mission first, and their own needs second.  An “I just do radios” attitude will keep you in the station, while the rest of the team gets the deployment. 

Members of FEMA Urban Search and Rescue CA-TF3 manage a Plans section during their deployment to the World Trade Center.  Tracking the whereabouts of Task Force personnel as well as mounting an organized search effort within their assigned sector was of paramount importance.  Photo: Dave Larton/CA TF3


To be able to deal with a variety of assignments, get as much training and experience as you can.   Drills and exercises can be the closest thing to real life, and you may not have time to learn a new skill when disaster strikes.   On our second night on the rubble pile, I was asked by our Task Force's Plans Chief to assume Resource Status (RESTAT) for our particular section of the search area.  This area had approximately 250 rescuers all searching at the same time, made up of uniformed members of the New York Fire Department, Police Department, Port Authority, EMS workers, FBI, DEA, and members of our own Task Force, as well as Colorado US&R Task Force 1.   Resource Status involves a check-in/check-out type of system that is basically a Personnel Accountability System within the overall Incident Command System.  With the huge amount of damage in our search area, it was virtually impossible to get one's bearings, and extremely easy to get lost.   Without knowing who was operating in the search area and who was not, there would be no way of determining who was injured or trapped if a large amount of debris suddenly shifted, as it did frequently.   A horn would sound when a life-threatening hazard would exist, and everyone would immediately evacuate the area.  The possibility existed that someone might get left behind.

I have to admit at this point that RESTAT was not one of my strong suits.  I have done it on occasion during drills and exercises in my own jurisdiction, and as an Incident Dispatcher on some of our larger structure and wildland fires.  My Task Force Plans Chief in New York had worked with me during some of those same responses back home, knew that I had had experience in the T-Card system, and that I was up to the challenge.  I began setting up our RESTAT system at the Forward Command Post, using a T-Card system we had used many times in California.  One of our first hurdles was to section off the search area into manageable sectors.  Without a common point of reference, we used a large copper globe that had been erected between the two towers as a memorial to the victims of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center.  Rather than having common terms like “Division A” and “Division B,” we used the globe as our central frame of reference.  “Are you working in front of, or behind the globe?”  “Are you working to the left or right of the globe?”  We thus had four sectors set aside where we could account for all of the working search personnel.

We didn't have to wait long.  A large piece of steel suddenly shifted, and the horn told everyone to scramble to safety.   As rescue workers started coming out of the area, we accounted for each one in the T-Card rack.  Soon, of the 268 rescuers we were tracking, we had accounted for all but three individuals.  The Task Force Leader contacted the agency to which they were attached, and they were quickly located, out of the search area; they had forgotten to check out when they left the area for a quick break. 

An FDNY Battalion Chief had been watching the RESTAT system at work, and was pleased that we could keep track of so many rescuers at the same time.  A grin from the Plans Chief was all I needed to know that we had accomplished our mission.



Another important lesson learned: put yourself in the other person's shoes.  The New York Fire Department had taken a tremendous hit on September 11th, taking the lives of 343 firefighters.  Emotions on both sides were running high, and it was very important for us to remember that we were in their house, working to find their brothers and sisters in the rubble.  We quickly found that a “how can I help?” attitude went much farther than a “we're here to show you how it's done” approach, which wasn’t our mission anyway.  We found the New York rescue workers to be generous and proud people, and they treated our Task Force with cooperation and respect.  But we had to earn their respect, and we went out of our way to do exactly that.    We worked side by side with them, performed our assignments to the best of our ability, and treated them with the same measure of empathy, understanding, and respect that we would have expected if this same disaster had happened to us.

CA TF-3 personnel at work on the pile.  In order to account for both task force and FDNY personnel, the Millennium Globe was used as a center point.  Nearly 300 rescuers were tracked at any one time by their working quadrant in relation to the globe. Photo: Dave Larton/CA TF3


Finally, when walking on someone else's turf, remember the phrase “every day's a school day.”  Be willing to accept new ideas, and new ways of accomplishing the mission.  We don't know it all, and we respond to learn from, as well as teach, the people we are trying to help.  When a tragedy like the World Trade Center happened, we pretty much had to throw the book away.  Conventional methods of getting the job done wouldn't work, and we had to quickly write some new chapters in our policy manual.   Use the knowledge and experience you have accumulated toward accomplishing the mission, realizing that you may have to make things up as you go along.    Keep the boss informed, ask a lot of questions, and be willing to jump in and assist in any way you can. 

Learn from as many different fields as you can; one day you may be doing RESTAT for the largest fire department in the country, on the largest disaster operation America has yet faced.  You may not know exactly how to get the job done, but you'll know that you can!

Associate Editor Dave Larton has been involved with public safety for 35 years, 15 of them in dispatch.  He is currently the State ACS Training Officer for the Auxiliary Communications Service,Telecommunications Branch of the California Emergency Management Agency (Cal EMA). He also serves as the Deputy State RACES Officer for the state Radio Amateur in Civil Emergency Service (RACES) program.  A nationally known dispatch instructor, Dave continues to provide training and consulting services for dispatchers and PSAP managers through First Contact 9-1-1.


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