When wondering if the nation is better prepared today than it was 22 years ago on September 11, 2001, first responders would like to say it is. The following details are a personal account of actions in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and key takeaways for increasing community preparedness.
For anyone who watched the 9/11 incident unfold on live television, it initially seemed unreal and unbelievable. With my eyes glued to the screen watching the news that morning, I received a notification to deploy. I had been a Texas A&M Task Force 1 member for over a year at that point as a rescue specialist, attending many structural collapse training courses and exercises at Disaster City, preparing for such an event.
Six years earlier, after the April 19, 1995, Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing, Dr. G. Kemble Bennett (then-director of the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service, TEEX) made it his mission to help Texas prepare for such an event. He worked toward establishing Texas A&M Task Force 1 in 1997 and the premier 52-acre urban search and rescue (US&R) training center, Disaster City, located at Brayton Fire Field as part of TEEX, in 1998.
By 2001, the Texas A&M Task Force 1 US&R team was fully equipped and trained to respond to the terrorist attacks because, first, the National US&R program had provided the team’s training. Secondly, the National US&R type 1 cache included ample equipment and supplies to support a response to a structural collapse. Thirdly, the type 1 US&R team was prepared to be self-sufficient for 72 hours. At the time of deployment, the team members were ready to fulfill their role as a small piece of the puzzle within the large-scale mission.
While local leaders plan, prepare, organize, and continually evaluate their programs to be prepared for the many risks within their communities, they struggle to maintain proficiency in all areas. It is unrealistic to believe that all preparedness plans will cover every possible scenario. The 9/11 incident introduced many new challenges. The lessons learned helped the response community identify many areas that needed to be addressed. Some of the puzzle’s critical components included communications interoperability, multiagency coordination, and specialized teams.
Having interoperable communications is essential for any organization to communicate with other agencies and jurisdictions during emergencies. Over the past 22 years, interoperability in communications has improved among multi-jurisdictional and multi-disciplinary response agencies. The 9/11 Commission Recommendations started that initiative.
The 9/11 report revealed the inability of first responders to communicate effectively with each other during the response. The Tenth Anniversary Report Card (in 2011) and 20 Years After 9/11: Examining Emergency Communications (in 2021) published their findings stating that New York still has limited success in communications interoperability. Although these reports focus on New York post-9/11, the fact is that similar issues exist at different levels and still challenge some jurisdictions across the nation. Some significant challenges include internal politics, financial costs, limited multiagency coordination, jurisdictional priorities, and a list of many other factors too long to list. There is no cookie-cutter solution across the board to solve these issues. Every jurisdiction should develop an interoperability plan. For the plan to be successful, it must include coordination between agencies and jurisdictions within their communities.
Improved interoperability developments and coordination have occurred at several high-profile national events such as the Political Conventions, World Series, and Super Bowl Games. Public safety national broadband networks such as FirstNet continue to expand and are used at large sporting events, disasters, and other emergencies to improve communications. These and many other technological advancements have been supported by funding that became available after 9/11. Funding and technological advancements are not the only things that will improve communications among different agencies and jurisdictions. Success relies on agencies and jurisdictions having a strong operational plan for communicating and confirming that information sharing is prompt and effective. Best practices include regularly training and exercising the plan, system, and processes while identifying improvement areas, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) National Emergency Communications Plan.
While some agencies and jurisdictions may be working closer together since 9/11, the planning, preparedness, response, and recovery to incidents require strong coordination. The prevention or response to incidents requires increased coordination between agencies. The National Response Framework states multiagency coordination can be in emergency operation centers (EOCs), fusion centers, joint operation centers, and other coordination centers. These coordination centers usually have workstations, communication equipment, meeting rooms, and other specialized equipment that provide an environment for multiagency coordination. Another way to improve multi-jurisdictional and multiagency communications is by establishing a unified command, typically at the incident’s command post.
Some jurisdictions have improved communication in the past two decades by establishing permanent local, state, and federal coordination centers. Intelligence agencies use coordination centers to strengthen communication to prevent future terrorist attacks. EOC activations are no longer just for emergencies but also for planned events such as large venues like concerts, trade days, college football games, and other significant events.
To be more effective during real-time disasters and emergencies, personnel must be trained in their specific roles by utilizing a variety of emergency exercises to evaluate their operational effectiveness. When deficiencies are identified during trainings and exercises, the organization is ultimately responsible for closing the gaps by improving the process.
Each large-scale emergency or disaster presents unique challenges. The 9/11 terrorist attacks had many unique challenges requiring assistance from specialized teams. These teams can help with rescue, medical services, mass care, debris removal, legal services, and other supporting areas. By comparison, New York City has many internal resources, but no community has unlimited resources. When developing planning and preparedness plans, communities should identify resources needed to address the risks within their jurisdictions. Many resources may need to come from other jurisdictions to support an incident. These resources could be more specialized, such as US&R teams, or more generalized teams like Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD):
- A US&R team consists of diverse skill sets working together to accomplish challenging goals. The US&R team comprises command, medical, rescue, search, planning, technical, logistical, hazardous materials, and communication specialists. Each position’s role now receives the specialized training and equipment that was lacking in New York in 2001.
- Since 9/11, the development of specialized teams for structural collapse, wide-area search, and swift water rescues has been added. While the National US&R system has maintained the same number of teams since 9/11, the State Urban Search and Rescue (SUSAR) Alliance has grown significantly.
- VOAD consists of non-government teams that deploy to assist a community in managing its immediate needs during a disaster. Responding to countless disasters and helping to serve some of the impacted areas, National VOAD has seen significant growth (158%) in its membership between 2000 and 2021.
Increasing Community Preparedness
Despite having complete confidence that Texas A&M Task Force 1 was fully prepared to respond to 9/11, the team had to overcome unforeseen challenges once on the scene to keep the rescue mission moving forward. For example, the team had not been trained on hanging from rescue ropes while cutting metal. A critical lesson learned from 9/11: no matter how well responders prepare, unforeseen challenges will arise that must be resolved on the fly.
Dwight D. Eisenhower’s words, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable,” should resonate with those in planning and preparedness. Developing a plan facilitates the organization of thoughts and the development of processes to achieve strategic goals while preparing for a future disaster. Catastrophic events bring unique challenges that responders must overcome. There is no way to be 100% ready for every challenge. However, planning and preparedness efforts before an incident allow responders to have more knowledge to make better decisions during it.
The 9/11 reports point out that teamwork, collaboration, and cooperation are equally essential for success. Effective planning and preparedness programs involve communications interoperability, multiagency coordination, and specialized team utilization. Realizing that they must work together to be efficient and successful, each community should aim to be as prepared as possible for a large-scale emergency or disaster. Every community may not be entirely ready for any possible incident, but most, if not all, are much more prepared to handle adverse situations and challenges based on lessons learned from 9/11.
Paul Gunnels has 37 years of experience in emergency services and is currently a regional section chief for the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM). He retired from the College Station Fire Department as an assistant chief, former rescue program director for Texas A&M Extension Service, and a member of Texas A&M Task Force 1. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Emergency Management from West Texas A&M University and a Master of Public Administration and Policy degree from Grand Canyon University. He also is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy.