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Author: Randall D. Larson
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
Originally Published in our Nov/Dec 2001 issue.
The date was supposed to be our celebration, our moment to recognize to the efforts of 9-1-1 and emergency dispatchers across our nation. Instead, it became a day of incomprehensible horror. Most of us, if we weren’t in the epicenter of the events, watched our TV screens with growing incredulity as those awful images engraved themselves with bloody clarity permanently upon our collective psyche.
I was there, growing increasingly numb as horror mounted on horror that terrible morning. I had been waiting for the last hour of Monday night’s midnight shift to end and looking forward to the respite of a warm bed. Instead, I wound up working in the city’s Emergency Operations Center until that afternoon, monitoring events nationwide and helping the Fire Chief and his senior staff manage the heightened alert the city and the rest of the nation was enduring. At one point several callers reported explosions in our eastern foothills. Anticipating the worst, we scrambled crews to investigate, until word came from the FAA that these were sonic booms caused by military jets patrolling our air space.
The 21st Century will hereafter be defined by the occurrences of this day. Life before and life after September 11th have become two very distinct and separate existences, and one cannot return to the other.
Watching the events as they unfolded in New York, in Virginia, and in Pennsylvania, we could not help but think of what our colleagues in those cities were going through. As more details were revealed, like unraveling layers of orchestration in a very somber musical dirge, we couldn’t help but imagine ourselves in the chairs and headsets of our fellow brethren of the microphone.
Imaging being a dispatcher in New York City. How would you manage the response to this kind of unimaginable disaster? How could you handle the realization that hundreds of your personnel were in the buildings when they crashed to the ground?
Imagine being a dispatcher for Arlington County, Virginia, and looking out your window and realizing you were now part of the day’s history? How would you answer a police officer’s cry that an airplane just slammed into the Pentagon?
Imagine being a dispatcher in rural Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, and answering a 9-1-1 call from an airplane that has just been hijacked? Imagine being a dispatcher for the New York State Police and answering a 9-1-1 call from a lady who’s son just called her from that same airplane, calling for help. Imagine being a continent away in northern California and answering a 9-1-1 call from a local woman whose husband just called her asking her to notify authorities that his plane had been hijacked. What would you do?
9-1-1 dispatchers are trained to handle most situations and through that same training develop the ongoing flexibility to adapt to the unprecedented and unexpected, but how does one prepare for events as unfathomable as these?
The emergency services community came together after September 11th, even more than our nation has. For us, it’s very personal. We have suffered immense loses among the rescuers, those who selflessly charged in to help and never saw the afternoon. But the public safety community has a remarkable quality of resilience. We will remember our lost, and honor them. But we will move on. We will modify our paradigms, adjust our expectations, anticipate those worst case scenarios and move forward with a renewed reserve and preparation.
In this special issue, with 15 feature articles and more than 50 pages of in-depth coverage, we acknowledge the sacrifices made by so many, and we recognize the unseen dispatchers who were in the very midst of September 11th, who faced the unimaginable and performed commendably from behind their dispatch consoles or in the field, one of whom paid the ultimate price. This issue of 9-1-1 Magazine is respectfully dedicated to who all were lost on September 11th, to each dispatcher who supported our emergency responders through their final moments, and to our military personnel who are now engaged in accomplishing our response.