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9/11/11: Ten Years Gone
Author: Barry Furey
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
As we approach the tenth anniversary of the attacks on America, there is time to look back on the decade that has come and gone since that fateful Tuesday morning. Each generation has its own defining moment; that remarkable event whose discussion is invariably triggered by the phrase, “where were you when?” Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy Assassination, Challenger; all of these catastrophes have names except one – 9/11. And perhaps the numerical remembrance is fitting since this “event” was actually a series of coordinated occurrences that happened on a singularly deadly day. One field, two towers, a five sided building, flights 11, 77, 93, and 175, 411 first responders and 2566 civilians dead; a list of numbers neatly wrapped up by three digits historically associated with our profession.
Rather than spend time on remembering where we were when, better we should give pause to consider where we have been since. My personal journey has taken me to a new job, a new state, a new relationship and a new child. My daughter will never know a world without the specter of terrorism, but neither she nor I will focus on that matter. We remain more concerned about protecting her from the perils of infanthood than from some faceless figure in the night. Professionally, I have had the honor of chairing the 2002 APCO International Conference - the first post 9/11 iteration of that gathering; as well as chairing the first APCO Homeland Security Taskforce. Unfortunately, the significance of both of these accolades is predicated upon the impact of the events described above. However, in our area of expertise it is often our response to emergencies that truly defines our experience. And by anyone’s definition, 9/11 and its aftermath were one hell of an emergency.
While there are thousands of personal stories and vignettes of our individual travels during the ten years gone, these eventually become woven into a tapestry that becomes a totem for where we collectively have arrived today. So, what – if anything – has changed? Has all the emphasis on homeland security and interoperability worked? Are we better prepared now than a decade ago to manage another attack? Well… yes… and no. I don’t have a handle on how much money was spent by the Feds in an effort to get us all to talk to one another, but it wasn’t just chump change, and a lot of folks I know have improved their capacity to integrate with their neighbors. Still, back in 2001 there was seemingly more discussion about communications in a single municipality response (the World Trade Center) than there was about a multi-agency command (the Pentagon), so throwing dollars alone at the issue may not be enough. Also consider that many of these dollars may never get directly to first responders because they go to statewide programs and infrastructure. I’m not saying this is bad, or that building a backbone isn’t a good strategy. What I am saying is that when it comes to grant projects, there is a wide range of effectiveness. And what I’m also saying is that grants typically go to fire or police departments. Independent communications centers may not even qualify to apply, even though they would seem to be the most logical conduit for interoperability. Regardless, much interoperability is currently being accomplished by Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) consolidations nationwide. The driving force here is economy, which has nothing to do with terrorism; or does it?
On a broader scale, the alphabet soup of programs that followed 9/11 has increased the preparedness of our first responders to mitigate a wide variety of incidents, many of which may be accidental in nature. Although the focus of these programs occasionally shifted, without their assistance a substantial number of apparatus, specialized vehicles, decontamination supplies, breathing apparatus and personal protective equipment (PPE) would not be in service today. All of these assets, combined with the training provided undoubtedly make us a safer society. In our PSAPs, we have added protocols to our call interrogations that deal with a variety of topics previously ignored, including suggested national standards for handling calls from hijacked airliners. So, here, too we have learned to look forward.
Still, as I sit here writing less than one month before the anniversary, I still wonder if there are many promises left unfulfilled. For everyone of us who watched the towers fall and understood the loss not in terms of concrete and steel, but in the content of lockers to be carefully gathered and delivered to loved ones, and of roll calls to which there would never be an answer there will always be the question “have we done enough?” Freshly back from Philadelphia – literally the birthplace of our nation – I contemplate the continuing battle for spectrum amid news that a major public safety radio project in Los Angeles may be headed back to the drawing board. As the 9/11 memorial in New York City prepares to open, my copy of USA Today tells me that the memorial to flight 93 remains $10 million short. Ben Laden will be dead a hundred days by the time the date rolls around, but a group of home-grown jihadists will be standing trial in the county next door. And so it goes.
When the next terror attack comes, we will respond. We always do. This time, a little older, a little wiser, and a little more prepared. All that’s gone is the past ten years. The danger still remains.
Our PSAP Management columnist 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.