The Price for Freedom: Fire Service Lessons from September 11

by | September 11, 2019

“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”
—Major General James Jackson

It’s been 18 years since United Airlines flight 175 and American Airlines Flight 11 were purposely flown by hijackers into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Shortly thereafter, the Pentagon was severely damaged by the impact of an additional airliner and resulting fire. Hijackers also crashed a fourth plane into a field near Shanksville, Pa., after the passengers and flight crew attempted to regain control of the aircraft.

I remember like it was yesterday. I had just promoted to fire chief and I was with several other firefighters at the gym early that morning. It wasn’t until the second plane hit that we knew this was no accident. I was immediately notified by Verdugo Dispatch to report to work ASAP.

For the first time since Pearl Harbor, the United States homeland was under attack. It would be weeks before we understood the complete toll, but within hours one thing was clear: Thousands had perished in the attacks, including a heartbreaking number of police, firefighters and EMS personnel.

We owe a great debt of gratitude to our military and our intelligence professionals that an attack of such magnitude has not hit our country again. In the 14 years after September 11, the number of foreign terrorist organizations rose sharply, as did the estimated number of fighters in Islamist-inspired foreign terrorist organizations. Today, the bigger threat to the U.S. is domestic terrorism, including jihadist-inspired attacks like the Pulse nightclub shooting and the San Bernardino shootings. The United States and its allies have significantly disrupted al Qaeda’s ability to plan and carry out attacks and degraded their overall capabilities, but the ideology remains a threat, crossing borders with the ease of an internet search. These attackers rarely have actual ties to al Qaeda or ISIS, but pledge loyalty to the cause.

Equally deserving of our attention is the rise in domestic terrorism motivated by right-wing extremism, such as the deadly El Paso assault. These attackers are moved to violence by racial bias and anti-government sentiment. Since 2014, the number of attacks from right-wing extremists worldwide has been greater than attacks from Islamic extremists. In May, the head of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, Michael McGarrity, testified that “Domestic terrorism is notably on the rise and the threat of domestic terrorism exists in every region of the United States and all walks of life.”

The United States and its allies have significantly disrupted al Qaeda’s ability to plan and carry out attacks and degraded their overall capabilities, but the ideology remains a threat, crossing borders with the ease of an internet search.

As we focus on what happened that horrible day 18 years ago, the idea that foreign terrorists can and did carry out a large-scale attack on our country is fresh in our minds. Following incidents such as El Paso and Dayton, we are also understandably concerned about the threat of domestic terrorists, regardless of their motivations. However, we must remember we are far more likely to experience a different kind of disaster—a flood, a building collapse, a wildland fire.

September 11 taught us countless lessons about disaster response. As you honor those who were killed, take time to reflect on these four:

  • Form good working relationships between police and fire. On September 11, law enforcement and fire had no good way to share information. Chief Joseph Pfeifer, the first FDNY Chief to respond to the World Trade Center attacks, has noted the view police officers got from their helicopters that day led them to understand the need to evacuate—but that information was not shared with the fire department. Don’t let rivalry or culture put first responder lives in danger at the next major incident in your community—do what needs to be done now to foster information sharing and the ability to work together effectively, without egos.
  • Prepare for technology to fail you. Countless articles and reports have been written about the failure of radio systems during the September 11 attacks. Much has been done to try to shore up our communications networks. FirstNet, created in 2012, is currently working to develop a nationwide broadband network designed to prioritize the needs of first responders. But technology can always fail us. On your next drill, practice what you’d do if the radio system failed and your interior crew has no communication with the incident commander.
  • Identify and practice methods for communicating with the public during disasters. Whether dealing with a widespread evacuation due to fire, an active-shooter situation or a political demonstration gone awry, public safety agencies need to know how to get information in the hands of the public and the media quickly and accurately—while simultaneously adapting to incoming information. Do you know the public alert systems your community uses, who has authority to activate them and whether residents need to opt in to receive alerts? Check out this free on-demand webinar from Lexipol to learn more.
  • Prepare your family. I don’t know a single firefighter who wouldn’t respond if called to a mass disaster. But I know many whose family would be completely unprepared. Developing an emergency plan is especially important when you might be called away and will be unable to help your family evacuate. Plan escape routes, meeting points and communication strategies, and always have a well-stocked emergency preparedness kit.

We honor the memories of those who gave their lives on 9/11 and in service to our country since. By remembering lessons from the attacks, we shall always remain prepared to fight against evil.

Communicating Effectively During Disasters & Major Incidents

SAM DIGIOVANNA is a 35-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as Fire Chief at the Monrovia Fire Department, and currently serves as Chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale. He is also a Senior Consultant for Lexipol’s Cordico wellness solution.

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