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One Year Later in Pennsylvania

Author: John M. Eller

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-09-11
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Originally Published in our Sep/Oct 2002 issue.

No one will ever forget that fateful day of September 11, 2001, when United Airlines Flight 93, bound for San Francisco from Newark, NJ changed course in the area of Cleveland, OH and began traveling east. Air traffic controllers knew that something was wrong when they heard a disturbance in the cockpit.

Westmoreland County 9-1-1 Center received a call from a passenger, asking for help, alerting them that the plane had been hijacked. Within minutes, after a gallant effort on the part of the passengers to retake the airliner, it crashed on the edge of a strip mine, near the town of Shanksville in neighboring rural Somerset County.

Somerset County is located approximately 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, PA. It encompasses 1,074 square miles and has a population 80,000. At that time, the Somerset 9-1-1 Center was located in Somerset Borough, in the basement of the County Courthouse. A staff of 21 employees serviced the needs of 21 police agencies, 29 fire departments and 13 ambulance companies.

The 9-1-1 center was comprised of three consoles. There was one supervisor and two call taker/dispatchers working on that ill-fated morning. Shortly after the first call about the crash of Flight 93 was received, the center was a flurry of activity. The duty dispatchers were assisted by emergency management personnel, a deputy sheriff, two county detectives and two Somerset Borough police officers who has stopped at the center.

What has changed since that ill-fated day around the 9-1-1 Center? According to Richard B. Lohr, the Emergency Management Coordinator and Director of Emergency Services there have been several changes around the center. First, William Baker was appointed as the new 9-1-1 Coordinator replacing Alan Baumgardner. Baker is also the Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator. Secondly, the entire 9-1-1 Center moved.

The facility is no longer in the basement of the County Courthouse. It moved across the street to a newly renovated, modern, three story 10,000 square foot facility, that was already county property.

Lohr said that the entire first floor of the facility houses the administrative staff and the offices of Emergency Management. The second floor of the building is filled with telephone, radio and computer equipment. A new CAD system was installed and went into operation in August 2002.  Somerset County did not have a CAD system previously. The second floor has a bunkroom and kitchen for the employees. The third floor is completely 9-1-1 Communications. The center has increased the number of consoles from three to five. The basement area contains a large backup generator, with a 14-day supply of fuel. The facility is a vast improvement compared with the old center. It has the latest technical equipment which should greatly enhance the service rendered to the emergency services in Somerset County.

Personnel already had a major challenge when Somerset County was again catapulted into the international spotlight with the Quecreek Mine rescue, which occurred eleven months later in August 2002.  The two sites were just eight miles apart.

It is somewhat ironic that both of the 9-1-1 Centers in Somerset and Westmoreland counties have new 9-1-1 facilities. The Westmoreland facility was supposed to have been dedicated on September 11, 2001. The cornerstone of the building was to commemorate the opening of the new center; instead, it became an epitaph for those who died that fateful day.

The newly-renovated Somerset County 9-1-1 Center, 2002.

Lohr said that most of the procedures that were in place before 9-1-1 are still being used. He said that all the personnel handled the emergency very well and that they adapted the attitude that they need to move on. Special events were in the planning stages for September 11, 2002.

Dan Stevens, addressing coordinator, for Westmoreland County 9-1-1 originally stated for the Nov/Dec 2001 edition of 9-1-1 Magazine that the window of opportunity for gathering information by a call taker may be very limited. This was the case when the call from Flight 93 was received. Therefore, use every valuable moment to gather information.

Many people were traumatized by the horrific events of September 11. There were many heroes in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania and they should all be remembered. However, most 9-1-1 personnel, who were behind the scenes, suffered emotionally as well. They have a job to do and cannot leave their console until it is done. In my eyes, they need to be ranked right in there with those on the front lines. Many thanks to all 9-1-1 personnel who did an outstanding job on that fateful day and continue to do so in their day-to-day duties.

John M. Eller has been Police Chief in Brookhaven, Pennsylvania, since 1981. In addition to being a columnist for 9-1-1 Magazine, he is a certified police instructor, consultant, criminal justice instructor, and weekly newspaper columnist.



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