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5 Years Later: Ground Zero, Grants, & Great Intentions

Author: Harold Schapelhouman, Menlo Park (CA) FPD

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-09-11
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Originally Published in our Sept/Oct 2006 issue. 

It’s hard to believe that it has been five years since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.  For those of us who worked there, we will never forget even as some of us still struggle to move forward both mentally and physically.

Daily, I look at my metal wrist band which reads “Chief Ray Downey 9/11-01 FDNY Special Operations.”  Ray was both a friend and a mentor to me after we met at the National Fire Academy during the development phase of what would later become the National Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Program, and I still wear the wrist band out of both respect and obligation.

I believe that respect is still shared across this Country by not only firefighters and other emergency workers, but also by most Americans who witnessed the noble actions and loss of so many responders, specifically 343 of FDNY’s bravest on that dark day.

Ask most people where they were on 9/11 and when they heard about the attacks and they can tell you to the spot.  But five years later, unless you were directly affected by the attacks or drive by the hole in the ground everyday, I sometimes wonder if most people get it.

The attacks and subsequent loss of responders helped to once again elevate the public’s respect of the entire Fire Service.  But with great respect comes great responsibility and five years later some agencies have found that the greater the height, the greater the fall as the “mileage” gained after 9/11 has come back to haunt them in many ways never imagined.

My sense of obligation to Chief Downey and all those who were lost that day has only been magnified by recent events such as Hurricane Katrina.  We all clearly have a lot of work left to do!


Unfinished Business

While a lot of good work has been done by many dedicated individuals since the attacks, I think it’s important to honestly identify areas of improvement.  The real challenge will be in “staying the course” and the sustainability of it all, especially as one generation passes the torch to the next.

Life looks a whole lot different from the rubble pile than it does in places like Washington, DC.  I learned that first hand after the Oklahoma City Bombing and re-visited that theory after working at the Trade Center.  Our well-intentioned political servants didn’t do us any favors as they threw money at the problem after 9/11, but we didn’t help with a thousand different voices telling them what we wanted and needed.

Five years later, the financial grant processes that distribute money and assistance are cleaner, more inclusive, and streamlined.  Many agencies have done prudent due diligence with funds but for others the money has made them stupid, something that hasn’t been lost on the news media or the public.

The creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was supposed to clean things up.  Apparently that may take some time – but what did you expect with the instant merger and changes of so many governmental agencies.  I think DHS is starting to get it after last year’s hurricane season.  “All risk” planning and strategies involving many agencies and partners are a good step in the right direction, but the true test is the next big event, and then the next one, and the one after that.  Remember: you’re only as good as your last call.


A National Plan

Here’s the million dollar question, what is our collective plan when it comes to terrorism?  How much are we willing to spend, and on what, and why, and how?  What are our 10 most important objectives as first responders?

High on my list after prevention would be the development of a National Mutual Aid System.  It’s overdue and I’m not sure why we aren’t there yet – but last year’s hurricane season should put it high on everyone’s list.  Some would argue that the State Emergency Management Compact Agreements (EMAC) fit the bill, but from where I sit, those EMACs looked a lot like shopping on E-Bay and not true mutual aid.

Part of the problem is standardization, which is the basis for resource typing [identifying specific resources that are commonly exchanged in disasters via mutual aid, by capacity and/or capability].  Again we are close on this but have yet to birth the baby, and a National Resource Typing Program is key if we hope to create a National Mutual Aid System.

Another elephant in the room is Interoperability – not only communications but on everything from radios and air paks to gas detectors.  Again, standardization is the key.  An entire cottage industry of vendors has set itself up around the Homeland Security money trough.  There are a million different gizmos, widgets, and things we all would like to have, but do you really need one, or ten; is it compatible with what your neighbors have; and next year who pays for the training, servicing, and maintenance on it when the grant money dries up?  Remember, Free isn’t necessarily <I>Free.</I>

Interoperability applies to people too.  When was the last time Emergency Responders interacted together to solve real problems during an exercise in your community?  If you just experienced a canned Emergency Operations Exercise and it worked well try this: turn off the power (including backup power) to the Emergency Operations Center, take down the radio and phone system, lock the bathrooms and then give everyone a packaged ready-to-eat meal and a bottle of water and tell them that is all they will get for the next 24 hours.  Now begin the exercise and see how that goes.  Fun no, real yes!

Training is a key element to preparedness and we need to play how we practice and practice how we play.  I am a huge supporter of the Incident Command System (ICS) and its child, the National Incident Management System (NIMS), but having responders taking and passing web-based training for NIMS 700 and 800 doesn’t mean that they will understand or retain the information and we all need to do better.


A Commitment of Resolve

Finally, as I looked into the faces and eyes of both Firefighters and Police Officers at the Trade Center five years ago I saw something that I first saw at the Oklahoma City Bombing years before and would later come to see again in the faces of the Astronauts helping look for their friends during the Columbia Shuttle Disaster and again last year in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

What I saw was both disbelief and resolve.  Until you have seen and experienced catastrophic death and suffering it’s hard to explain it.  The sights and smells last a life time in your memory and it changes you.

Survival in that type of situation depends upon your resolve.  Some people just fade away, others will plod along, but some will step up.  The firefighters who put up the American Flags at the Trade Center and Pentagon sent a message for all of us: We may be bent, but we are not broken!

At the time this was written, Harold Schapelhouman was the Division Chief in charge of special operations with the Menlo Park (CA) Fire District and Task Force Leader with CA-TF3.  He is now the Fire Chief of his agency and continues to be a leader in firefighting and US&R operations and management, with more than 30 years experience in the fire service.



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