Title Page Previous Next Contents | Part 1. A Day of Disaster >Emergency response

Emergency response

 

First to respond in New York City and Arlington County, Va., of course, were local firefighters, police and other rescue workers. Many were lost as the buildings collapsed in New York City; in fact about one-sixth of the dead were themselves those who had gone in to rescue and evacuate building occupants. No first responders, fortunately, were lost at the Pentagon.

 

Fortunately, as big cities, New York City and Arlington, Va., on the edge of the nation’s capital, had an “incident command system” in place that specified a protocol to integrate the many agencies into one coordinated system, to avoid confused, delayed or redundant response efforts. This standardized management system, a paradigm used by the fire service since the 1970s has been adopted by more and more cities, helped to some extent. (9)

 

But when disaster struck, New York City emergency officials were caught off-guard because critical elements of the safety infrastructure—911 communication systems, emergency management, and the coordinating system for first responders—had been hard hit. 

 

The biggest challenge to that city’s overall emergency response was that the city’s Office of Emergency Management, which had been well organized and well funded but also headquartered at the World Trade Center, lost its entire command center. The agency intended to coordinate the emergency response among myriad agencies, it was forced to evacuate in the early chaotic hours of the disaster. Many telephone, power and computer lines were down. And because the police had closed lower Manhattan, it was very difficult even for officials to get past checkpoints without badges.

 

When cell phones didn’t work, “email was a bit of a savior for people,” says Richard Cole, supervisor at the Arlington County Environmental Health division.

 

That left the first responders reeling in their initial response--and also affected the environmental health response. Because power had been cut off, some of the air-sampling monitors weren’t working; cell phones and communications were spotty, if functioning at all, because suddenly thousands of people were trying to use their cell phones. Many firefighters may have not have heard the order to evacuate the buildings because of failures of hand-held radios, according to the Kinsey Report commissioned by the New York Fire Department. (10)

 

Many of the offices concerned with environmental health, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region II office, and the city’s Department of Health itself, both of which evacuated employees and closed, were within blocks of the World Trade Center. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, based in the top floor of World Trade Center Building 6, evacuated all its employees before that building collapsed. (11)

 

In the process, the DOH building was unexpectedly transformed into a “triage” area, as staff and civilians brought the injured into the lobby for medical treatment.

 

At the Pentagon, as in Manhattan, communications breakdowns were a big problem too. In fact, say experts, “lack of communications was the greatest weakness in this disaster.” (12)

 

Inside the Pentagon, communications couldn’t be transmitted out due to security; some of the District’s counties didn’t have compatible communications frequencies, with Arlington County—the incident commander—and all of Northern Virginia using 800 Megaherz and Maryland using something else, for example. A virus shut down computers in nearby Fairfax County. (13)

 

When cell phones didn’t work, “email was a bit of a savior for people,” says Richard Cole, supervisor at the Arlington County Department of Human Services’ Environmental Health Bureau. “Unless you had two-way capability, cell phones were ineffective,” he adds. That made his job of trying to get staff coverage particularly challenging: “I spent a lot of hours trying to get people because we were so short-staffed,” he says.

 

Nevertheless, here, thanks to pre-planning, many of the agencies had preprogrammed Arlington County’s radio frequency in order to communication, and there was a limited supply of other compatible portables on hand to fill in the gaps for other law enforcement agencies in the region. (14)

 

At the Pentagon, in contrast with New York, the incident command system and the system designed for “all hazard consequence management” worked superbly, say experts. That was partly because the operation was under a single command. The Arlington County Fire Department. Emergency teams worked well together in part due to pre-established relationships, adequate resources and prior experience in emergencies, according to John Harrald, of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster, and Risk Management at George Washington University. In Washington, some of the first responders were seasoned responders at the Oklahoma City bombing as well as a prior tragedy, an airlines crash at National Airport. (15)

 

By contrast with the Pentagon, New York’s response was one of huge “organizational complexity,” according to Harrald, who tracked a list of as many as 449 organizations responding to the emergency, including 159 from the public sector alone.

 

Even the last terrorist attack on the World Trade Center buildings had not prepared New York City for this event. In the last incident, which occurred on February 29, 1993, a bombing in the parking garage of the World Trade Center resulted in the deaths of five people and thousands of injuries. The bomb left a crater 200 by 100 feet wide and five stories deep. (16)

 

This time around, New York needed all the reinforcements it could get.

 

Among the more uniquely difficult challenges that responders have named: The sheer scope and scale of the incident, its cause, the number of human lives taken, the environmental destruction, the physical devastation, the financial impact globally and locally, the concentrated geographic area, the involvement of multiple agencies, and the international scope of its ramification. 

 

Environmental and public health touched on a good number of these challenges, as well as many of the key functions involved in the cleanup—firefighting, urban search and rescue, recovery of crime scene evidence, medical emergency care, public works (debris removal, construction and deconstruction), traffic control, public health (sanitation, control of dust inhalation, isolation of dead bodies, or the injured), removal of hazardous materials, and mortuary operations.


Photo: Library of Congress, Prints &

Photographs Division; Don Halasy

It wasn’t just the colossal size of the disaster site—16 acres—and the monumental task ahead of moving debris, or that so many offices had been closed, or that the city was in a state of physical crisis. Within hours, the city had to bounce back when it was in a heightened state of grief, mourning and ultimately shock. Police asked for volunteers to direct traffic and move vehicles. Hundreds of people lined up to donate blood.

At the Pentagon, too, there was extra stress because of being within the ‘orbit’ of other potential terrorist hijackings—news of the diverted plane to Pennsylvania having just been announced. Because of rumors flying, fire fighters and emergency responders at the Pentagon left the scene at one point when it was believed that another terrorist attack was underway, leading to confusion and worry that rescue opportunities might have been lost. Government buildings, including the Capitol and the White House, were evacuated with officials citing a credible threat of yet another terrorist attack.  Soon after law enforcement officials reported that a car bomb had exploded outside of State Department in Washington, D.C., an event that is later proven false.

 

In many ways rescue workers at the Pentagon were better equipped. Although officials in Arlington County would never ask for a disaster to come their way, many admit that they were equipped with some inherent advantages.

 

Dodie Gill, director of Arlington’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), was down at the Pentagon soon after the plane crash,  “offering critical incident stress management to public safety employees.” Months later, she hates to admit that “Arlington was a perfect model” for operating optimally in a disaster situation. Arlington, being at the center of government and the military, was uniquely situated to respond to a major fire and rescue incident of this scale. “You almost couldn’t ask for a better scenario,” says Gill.

 

“I turned on my heel when I heard the news of the crashes,” she recalls, “and got moving. I thought, ‘That’s us." Because traffic was completely grid locked, she and her staff walked about a mile to the nearest fire station, where they were immediately deployed to an off-site rehab center. By evening, she says, “we were at the Pentagon, doing what they could to provide support and comfort to our fire and rescue people."

 

(For an interesting interview with Dodie Gill and Capt. Bob Gray )

http://www.burningissues.com/Wellness%20Week%202003.htm

 

The successes the fire department claimed that day Gill credits to EAP’s past experience in rendering critical incident stress management, especially its underlying credo and modus operandi of care giving. “We believe in order to perform, public employees, no matter what agencies, have to be protected and cared for,” says Gill, who was credited for her extra preparedness and care, arriving on the scene before others, in Arlington County’s “After Action Report,” completed several months after the attacks. This, report notes, demonstrated “that taking care to the firefighter is as important as taking care of the firefighter.” 

 

That day, says Gill, every effort was made to keep it a safe and healthy work environment. “We kept firefighters and rescue workers hydrated with water and made sure they had clean underwear,” says Gill.

 

Of course, the teamwork didn’t begin or end that day, she stresses, but is an ongoing process based on trust and understanding built over years of work and longevity of relationships. Months later, Gill would join an energetic team of her co-workers—firefighters and other responders—in commemorating the lives of those lost on 9/11 with a days’ long bike-a-thon ride between New York’s Ground Zero and the Pentagon.