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9/11 A Decade Removed

Author: Dave Larton

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-09-09
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I was asked by 9-1-1 Magazine Editor Randall Larson to express a few thoughts on the events of 9/11, and how we’ve changed, ten years later.  I’d given the request quite a bit of thought; attempting to adequately describe where we stand today, a decade after the Twin Towers fell, appeared at first to be a fool’s errand…like Shrek’s life, 9/11 is really complicated, having dozens of ‘layers’, depending on where you stood that day.  Should I discuss the changes made in 9-1-1 communications, the rising importance of interoperability, the effects of 9/11 on our Incident Command System, or the personal side of being a World Trade Center first responder?  Like many of us, I put off the assignment as long as I could… while I pondered which way I should go.  I waited for my journalistic muse to enlighten me.

Two of my grandchildren, twelve year old Christian, and nine year old Hailey, were interested in the 9/11 patches and lapel pins in a large picture frame that I keep in my office.

“You were there, Papou?”, Christian asked, pointing back to the wall.

“I was there…”, I replied.  “Be right back…”

I retrieved my California Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 3 helmet from a box in the hall closet and placed it on his head.  He beamed.

“Cool”, he said.  He was more impressed at the helmet than why I had one.

Ten years ago, Christian was a feisty two year old, and he has no clear memory of that September morning.  While many of us have ‘moved on’, and some are still living in the moment, his world has always been a ‘post 9/11’ existence.  Hailey had not even been born as yet.   Attempting to explain 9/11 to my grandkids reminded me of my own father, telling me of his experiences as a twelve year old child in England during World War II.  Christian’s 2011 world is a scene from Call of Duty on the X-Box; to him, the Twin Towers might as well have been on Mars.   I can’t blame him for not knowing; the children that listened to President George W. Bush reading ‘My Pet Goat’ on September 11th are now seniors in high school.  It really was… a long time ago.

So, where is our profession ten years later?

Looking back at where we’ve progressed in emergency communications, we’ve made some significant progress since 2001, while we’ve been stymied in some other respects.  We continue to move forward in the new 700/800 Mhz spectrum, and our responders are slowly making the transition from the analog to the digital world.  In 2001, few agencies had something as sophisticated as a Mobile Command Center, and even fewer had the mysterious black magic boxes that allowed disparate agencies to communicate with each other.  Now the huge rolling bread truck Emergency Operating Centers are becoming quite common, and our problem is not having a magic black box on an incident, but rather trying to coordinate a Communications Plan when it seems everybody has one, and wants to use it at the same time. 

Digital communications for responders is no longer in its infancy; (handheld radios exist that can communicate on both the analog and digital spectrum), yet the country does not have a nationwide interoperability plan.  Indeed, political infighting and a scramble for rapidly evaporating Federal funding has kept many an agency from playing in the same interoperability sandbox with their neighbors. 

The Incident Command System has continued to grow and prosper since September 11th.  It’s a little difficult to get your head wrapped around the FDNY response to the Twin Towers: 126 engines, 62 ladder companies and 27 Chief Officers.  I had the opportunity of working inside the FDNY Fire Command Post at Church and Vesey Streets; I was amazed that so many people could be deployed and tracked at the same time. We had 5 US&R Task Forces working on the pile at the same time (about 350 responders) while I was there…that had never been done before…

While the basic ICS organizational structure has not changed significantly since its FIRESCOPE origin in California during the 1970’s, the majority of responders have adopted the ICS philosophy as their own.  Ten years ago, the term ‘Incident Dispatcher’ was little known to the Emergency Services community.  Today, it is considered a part of the ICS Communications Unit lexicon.  APCO and NENA have worked together in establishing the Telecommunicator Emergency Response Task Force (TERT), deploying trained dispatchers to sister PSAP’s in need.  I’ve been honored to have been able to have trained hundreds of TERT dispatchers in over a dozen states.  I’m especially pleased at the number of Incident Dispatchers who have gone on to become Communications Unit Leaders, and COML classes are popping up all over the country.

9-1-1 PSAP’s have seen an explosion of technology since 2001.  Digital recorders replaced the old reel-to-reel equipment we grew up on; wireless headsets have become commonplace.  Touch screen monitors, GPS systems and the introduction of social media (Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare used for emergencies? Amazing!) to the      9-1-1 environment were for the most part unheard of ten years ago. Yet, we still suffer from addressing errors, dropped cellular telephone calls, and many CAD systems still struggling to keep up with the ever increasing demands of today’s 9-1-1 dispatcher.  While 9-1-1 telecommunicators are better recognized as the career professionals they truly are (I was referred to as a ‘clerk’ when I broke in), they still do not have the respect they really deserve.

Ten years later, some of our Task Force members have retired from the team, while others continue to serve today.  Some have become ill; the other Communications Specialist on my Task Force, George Berry, died within a few months of deployment of an aggressive form of throat cancer.  He was not a smoker.   George worked in the same areas of that pile that I did…he worked days while I worked nights.  While I was also injured by the caustic dust from the pile, I’m just happy to be here. Like folks say in the South, ‘every day’s a blessing’.

As we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, some of the memories the public had of where they were that day have faded.  The American flag I took to New York to represent my hometown was returned at a City Council ceremony, and now resides in a triangular display case in the lobby of our police department.  Few know how it came to be there, or how it even got to New York.  The Task Force helmet has returned to its rightful place in the closet, along with my uniform, torn leather gloves, scratched goggles and fire boots.  They have not been cleaned; all carry the gray gunky dust from the Towers.  They have not been worn since I returned; Christian was the first to wear the helmet in ten years.  They aren’t placed out to display; yet… I keep them anyway. 

I hear a lot about closure; I’m not sure that closure is always possible.  I’m reminded of a scene from the movie ‘The Rabbit Hole’ when memories are compared to having a brick in your pocket.   (The clip is available on You Tube).  You may forget for a while that the brick is there, and yet… it is always there to remind you.  It becomes a companion.   You may take the brick out, examine it for a moment, then… put it back in your pocket.

I have no particular interest in seeing the 9/11 Memorial in New York; now right now, anyway.  I’ll go see it after the crowds have died down, and I can have a chance to pause and reflect a bit. 

Where will we be in 2021?  What changes will we have in the Emergency Communications field?  I can only imagine.  I’m hopeful that Christian and Hailey, both in college by then, will still be wondering about the events of September 11th, and may even want to take some of my stuff in the closet to Show and Tell.

See you all in ten years!

Associate Editor Dave Larton has been involved with public safety for 35 years, 15 of them in dispatch.  He is currently the State ACS Training Officer for the Auxiliary Communications Service,Telecommunications Branch of the California Emergency Management Agency (Cal EMA). He also serves as the Deputy State RACES Officer for the state Radio Amateur in Civil Emergency Service (RACES) program.  A nationally known dispatch instructor, Dave continues to provide training and consulting services for dispatchers and PSAP managers through First Contact 9-1-1.


Additional Sept 11th 10-Year Anniversary coverage

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