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9-1-1 Magazine: Managing Emergency Communications

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Attack on the Pentagon: The PSAP Response

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-09-10
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Originally Published in our Nov/Dec 2001 issue.

The morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001 found the staff of the Arlington County Emergency Communications Center in Virginia, like much of America, transfixed by the unbelievable scenario unfolding from New York City, which was being broadcast on control room TVs.  Even as sketchy information developed about the cause of the initial impact on the World Trade Center, they placed themselves in the headsets of their New York counterparts, imagining the types of calls they were most likely receiving:  “Should I stay in my office or should I jump?” “I can’t get down the stairs.” “I don’t know if I can make it.  Will you call a loved one for me?” As Steve Souder, a former firefighter and current Director of the Arlington ECC put it, “the kind of calls that wrench your soul.”

As the scenario unfolded in Lower Manhattan and the second plane found its mark, their thoughts turned to the possibility that the Washington, DC suburb could be a target.  Located immediately across the Potomac from our nation’s capital, almost one fifth of Arlington consists of Federal property.  Unfortunately, a few minutes later, their worst fears came true.  From their fifth floor windows – located on the same wall as their television set – came a real time view of the attack on one of the more visible government installations in Arlington – the Pentagon.  This was immediately followed by what has been described as ”a deafening roar, then a low rumble.”  From that moment on dispatchers and call takers ceased being spectators and became active participants in the day’s unforgettable events.

Below: A makeshift memorial dedicated to the victims of the Pentagon terrorist attack.
Photo by Jocelyn Augustino/ FEMA News Photo

The most immediate and obvious impact on the communications center was the need to mobilize many resources while fielding non-stop 9-1-1 calls.  The increased level of incoming reports lasted for about 15 to 20 minutes, and then leveled off.  Several field units also advised the center of the emergency, including one law enforcement officer who was close enough to the site to identify the air carrier involved. 

The Arlington County Fire Department operates in two battalions, with a total of ten engines, two ladders, two rescues, and six medic units.  Even before the IC had made a formal request, ECC personnel notified adjacent Alexandria and Fairfax Counties of the disaster, allowing them to assemble task forces for response to the scene.  This mutual assistance has been part of the daily routine in these communities for some thirty years, although this incident provided a significant test.  As part of this familiar relationship, significant communications interoperability exists.  Each jurisdiction has the ability to communicate on the other’s 800 MHz trunking system, allowing for significant sharing of information.  Later on, as additional resources from outside the local sphere were required, some incompatibility was experienced.  Wireless telephones didn’t fair quite as well, almost immediately going into a state of gridlock.  This severely hampered their use by key officials, and reinforced the need for priority network access by emergency services.

Besides their obvious support of field personnel, telecommunicators took additional actions.  One was to notify all local hospitals to expect casualties and to get a quick count of available beds.  Another important activity was to shore up their own resources.  As luck would have it – if there were such a thing as luck in situations like these – that very day the ECC was conducting an in-house training class on their new telephone system.  The six students in attendance were quickly commandeered to assist the eight dispatchers on duty.  The reverse 9-1-1 system and group pages were used to notify off duty personnel of the situation, along with the best routes to take when returning to work.  Anyone familiar with normal traffic in the Washington, DC area can appreciate the impact of this incident, and the efficacy of providing staff with this critical information.  Another example of forethought was the procurement of several rooms at a nearby hotel for the staff.  Once it became clear that airline flights would be cancelled and that rooms would be scarce, steps were taken to ease the burden on employees who would otherwise have faced the combination of long hours and long commutes.  Still, despite all efforts, such situations can be extremely stressful for telecommunicators.  The husband of one working tactical dispatcher is employed at the Pentagon.  For seven hours she controlled the incident and her emotions while waiting for his call.  When it came, it brought good news, but the wait had to have been interminable.

The hardened nature of the structure, along with the massive amounts of jet fuel involved posed some interesting challenges for responders.  Unlike the World Trade Center, which suffered an almost total collapse, a significant portion of the Pentagon was still standing, and fires burned steadily in some hard-to-reach sections.  Those on the scene were also forced to combat awareness of the devastating losses of FDNY, NYPD, and Port Authority personnel.  After all, two planed has careened into the WTC.  Would a second airplane strike in the midst of the rescue and firefighting efforts here at the Pentagon?

Dispatchers Joan Delalien (background) and Jane Johnson working in the Arlington County (VA) emergency communications center.
Photo via Arlington County PSECC

 As night fell, it brought with it some additional concerns for the safety of firefighters and rescue workers.  Operations were slightly scaled back, providing some much needed breathing room in the PSAP.  The first twelve hours of the operation were deemed the most critical, with major demands being placed on the ECC during this time.  As many of us experienced, there was a slight drop in other call volume during this time.  While there were no concurrent major incidents, business did continue almost as usual, and incidents were received and dispatched.  At the end of this period something unusual did begin to happen, however.  The center began to receive emails, which still continue as of this writing.  All told, about six hundred messages of support have been received.  Each employee has been presented with a loose-leaf notebook containing copies.  Certificates of appreciation will be mailed to every sender whose identity is known.  According to Steve Souder, “Our greatest source of strength through all of this has been knowing that our colleagues are thinking about us.” He went on to discuss the rightful amount of attention that has been given to the firefighters, law enforcement officers, medical personnel, urban search and rescue teams and others who have dealt with this tragedy firsthand.  And, despite the direct hit suffered by his staff and community, he felt that Arlington’s crisis “paled in comparison to that of New York.”

When asked what lessons could be learned from this incident, Souder shared the following:

  • Having extra personnel on hand allowed the use of a “typer/talker” team approach, where one telecommunicator used the radio and the other entered information through the keyboard.  This was vital in maintaining accurate CAD records.
  • While attempts were made to provide appropriate breaks, time went by so quickly that some were missed.  Also, since the in-service dispatchers had such a working knowledge of the incident, it was difficult to replace them without some loss of continuity.
  • Developing a good mindset as to what you are dealing with is critical, as is the pro-active use of resources.
  • Support of personnel is vital.  Let them know they’re doing a good job – even in the middle of their doing it.
  • The recall of communications center personnel was not an issue.  Many responded voluntarily.  Most arrived within two hours.

In the wake of this incident, Arlington has made few changes to their normal SOP, but has developed guidelines for agencies that receive 9-1-1 distress calls from commercial airline passengers. These are available on the APCO International Website, www.apcointl.org.

Perhaps Steve’s final comments on the subject serve as a fitting summation. “The fact that people in the field and in our center are well trained evidenced itself through our management of the greatest challenge that we have ever confronted. While we are sad for the terrible loss of life and destruction, we are pleased with the way in which we responded.”

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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