Big Things Do Happen In Small Fire Departments

Steve Meyer describes the aftermath of the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93 on 9/11 outside a Pennsylvania community of 250 people.


Sept. 11, 2001, conjures up myriad gut-wrenching memories for Americans - and we in the fire service in particular. On that dreadful day, while the eyes of the world were focused on the two disasters that took place in our nation's largest city and the seat of our country's power, another...


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A critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) team was on scene at all times. Two debriefings were held for emergency responders. Some members also used the CISD team on an individual basis.

Up to the Challenge

Though Shanksville fits into the mold of a small fire department, its members were up to the challenge for what they encountered on 9/11. The department and all other volunteer emergency response personnel had participated in training and networked enough with the Somerset County Emergency Management Agency to understand disaster management procedures, according to Somerset Emergency Management Coordinator Rick Lohr.

Lohr noted that one of the challenges to the incident was getting the FBI to cooperate within the fire department's command structure. As Lohr explained, it took a couple of days for everything to mesh together into a well-managed system, but once that was achieved everything went well, a feeling shared by Shaffer and King. Briefings and conferences were held twice a day of all agencies involved, including the fire and ambulance departments. The information exchange was a key component in successful operations at the disaster.

After three weeks, the FBI completed its investigation and operations at the scene were turned over to the Somerset County Coroner for further body recovery. The FBI informed authorities they believed 95% of the body recovery work was complete.

"We found it to be the other way around, only 5% was complete," Lohr noted. "They didn't have the people to complete the job because of everything else that was going on elsewhere. Those people were stretched thin."

The incident quickly became a community effort. Initially, wives of firefighters and other people from Shanksville saw the need to provide food and resources for the many people operating at the scene. Some literally abandoned their jobs and organized themselves to start feeding the people and soliciting donations to supply the operation. From there everything snowballed. Once word was put out by the media about what was needed to support people working at the scene, food and other supplies flowed into Shanksville from a three-state area.

"We really were overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from everywhere," Shaffer said. "Things came in twofold. All you had to do was put out the word to the media and soon enough you had what you needed."

Everything from shaving supplies to blankets and long underwear to ward off the chill of night, and fresh changes of clothes made their way to the Shanksville fire station. Food came in abundance. Olive Garden restaurants provided meals to PSP officers working security in remote locations. Like firefighters and EMS personnel, people from the community scheduled themselves in shifts to tend to the food needs. The Somerset County EMA set up a resource station for working supplies at the site. Shovels, tables and other items could be obtained on-scene at the resource station. For other items, the EMA handled requests and made arrangements to borrow or rent whatever was needed by workers at the scene.

One of the major problems encountered at the incident as explained by Shaffer included other emergency responders self-dispatching themselves to the incident, a similar problem experienced in New York City. Initially, unauthorized people entering the scene was a problem.

"People literally came out of the woods," Shaffer said, adding that the perimeter set up by the PSP gained control over those problems. "It was tough getting people who didn't belong there out until the guys with the guns showed up."

Another problem was dealing with the media. The Shanksville Fire Department does not have a designated public information officer (PIO), something a bigger city would have. Shaffer said that while the FBI was present, it took care of the media. Once the FBI left, Shaffer and King did the media interviews concerning the Shanksville Fire Department. They estimate that during the time of incident operations and in the year following, between the two of them they conducted 400 interviews with local, national and even international news media. Somerset County Coroner Wally Miller handled all other media interviews.