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September 11th 2016: Fifteen Years of Reflection & Remembrance

Author: Randall D Larson

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2016-09-11
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Left: 9-1-1 Magazine's Memorial emblem, Nov/Dec 2001 issue. Designed by Bob Payne.

In recognition of the 15th anniversary of that awful Tuesday in America, I’m sharing below my immediate post-9/11 reactions, at best as I could muster the words to put thoughts and feelings into coherent order and context, as published in the editorial pages of our Nov/Dec 2001 and Jan/Feb 2002 issues as a prelude to the extensive coverage we’d brought together examining in depth the response of public safety agencies and their communications personnel on that Tuesday and in the many days after.

Of the one hundred and two issues of
9-1-1 I edited from 1995 through 2009, after which we went to an online format, those two issues are the ones that are most meaningful to me, and of which I am most proud. Pulling together three dozen separate articles and columns and sidebars on nearly every aspect of public safety communications challenges and solutions for responders at Ground Zero, at the Pentagon, and in Somerset County, PA… editing though tears and trembling hands as words and images hit home, grateful for the support of extra pages and print run by my publisher and with the input of my associate editor whose boots were on the ground at the World Trade Center as part of California’s US&R Task Force 3 response, I strove to make these issues my personal dedication to those lost and personally affected by the events of Sept. 11th.

I find it helpful to review my thoughts and feelings of those defining moments as I put them down in those two editorials; to re-examine what I felt and how it changed the way I carried on in the days and years and decade-and-a-half that followed. Re-reading what I wrote fifteen years ago, remembering what I did and how I felt as I watched, aghast, as the airplanes pierced concrete and ground, the towers burned and fell, and an irreplaceable portion of humanity ceased to exist… as I read the reports of those who responded and what they experienced, I like to think I’ve learned something about carrying out my duty in my own portion of the public safety system. The obligation to always be prepared, avoiding complacency, and keeping my skills up to date.  In the supervisor’s chair in meant understanding how to lead by allowing my subordinates to excel in their jobs, encouraging though my actions and attitudes and being trustworthy and available. I regret that I didn’t always succeed but I recognized the obligation and I believe I strove to accomplish it and serve as an example.

As you reflect on the events of Sept. 11th, 2001 and on the actions of America's first responders in the midst of it, let that be a remembrance and as a reminder that the excellence of the responders and telecommunicators at the heart of 9/11 should be the goal of all 9-1-1 emergency dispatchers, all the time, every day, every call. For all of us in public safety, for the sake of the public who depend on our appropriate handling of their 9-1-1 calls, the responders who depend on our accuracy, dependability, and composure while managing their radio channels, and the allied agencies who depend on our precise handling of their requests for service or mutual aid, the quality of our work is punctuated by the fact that if we do less than the best 100% of the time, someone’s life will be at stake. Few other office jobs outside of the military come with that kind of burn of responsibility.  In our particular jobs, reflecting once more on 9/11, it means cooperation and teamwork, planning and preparation, empathy and understanding, an assertive determination to make a difference – and always being prepared to handle the worse than can happen.

Just as we saw responders and telecommunicators alike perform with awesome dedication, selfless purpose, and honor on that devastating Tuesday morning in September, fifteen years ago. - rdl


- from 9-1-1 Magazine, November/December 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 has 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 whose 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. 

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.

Unpublished memorial banner, designed by editor for Nov/Dec 2001 issue.


- from 9-1-1 Magazine, January/February, 2002 issue

Our last issue began our comprehensive coverage of our response to the terrors of September 11th, 2001. For many, those events, especially those in Manhattan, seemed insurmountable, incredulous, impossible to respond to with any means other than chaos. But there was order in the midst of calamity, an appropriate response was mounted and managed, and diverse responders from many disciplines came together to aid each other. In this issue we focus on the days that followed, examining the aftermath and recovery that followed the dreadful hours of that unforgettable day.  

On September 11th, the embodiment of evil gripped our nation and snuffed out the lives of hundreds of public safety personnel and thousands of innocent civilians. But on that same day and those that followed, we saw that goodness proved more than the match to the evil wrought by terrorism. We saw, we read, we heard of countless acts of humanitarianism, of leadership, of heroism in the midst of chaos and tragedy.

As the shock, outrage, and grief of September segues into a new kind of normalcy, those of us in public safety recognize that life in America is not and will not be the same. Continued threats of bioterrorism and suspicious persons or packages have assaulted our 9-1-1 centers in previously unheard of quantities. Our public is more nervous, more apt to call about seemingly minor suspicions, and we have to be understanding and responsible because the potential for renewed terrorism is very real. Military aircraft patrol the skies above many of our cities, reminders that a continuing threat exists, as does our resolve to be prepared to fight back in a big way.

Now that four months have passed since the sights and sounds and feelings of September 11th seared themselves into our collective memories, perhaps it’s time to take a step back and explore what can be learned from our unified response to the attacks. There was no way any of us could have prepared for an event of the magnitude that took place in New York City. With the threat of further terrorist strikes during a time of war, no police, fire, or EMS department or district can truly claim to be neither completely prepared nor completely isolated from the continued threat of terrorism. Collectively and individually, our local public safety agencies must be as prepared as possible, and we must be willing to take a hard look at our policies and our mutual training, and we must be very prudent with our budgets to allow us to gain an appropriate local preparedness. Our national Urban Search & Rescue and Incident Management Team programs need to take a close look at how they integrated into operations in Manhattan and the Pentagon and learn how best to execute an appropriate and effective supporting role into a local jurisdiction deeply affected by such an event. Local agencies need to recognize the capabilities and expertise of these national teams and not feel threatened by their assimilation into local incidents, and all must work together and share a mutual mission free of ownership conflicts.

As we reflect upon the response to the September 11 attacks, there are indeed lessons to learn and heroic actions to recognize. There are no fingers to point. There are no glaring mistakes to be criticized. There was only the best response that could be mounted by local and national responders to an unprecedented tragedy wrought through evil and malevolent intent, amid the threat of further attacks. As we seek to learn from what transpired in the response on the days that followed that terrible Tuesday, our goal should be to recognize what succeeded and encourage new solutions to those situations that were the most challenging to our unified response.

With the dawn of 2002, the dust clouds of lower Manhattan continue to cast a shadow upon ongoing life in America. Our goal in public safety is to persevere and be ready for continued unity within the public safety community should further malicious destruction be waged against us. We feel our wounds deeply, but we move on and resume life with a positive and renewed spirit; sometimes, as now, with a firmer resolve, a more coherent anticipation of our reaction, and perhaps a different outlook as to what really matters.

Further Reading:

A variety of public safety 9/11 Memorial images used in our Nov/Dec 2001 issue and later:








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