9/11/06 ... So Where Are We At?

Even when expert chiefs like the great Ray Downey was warning everyone, some looked at him as if he claimed that the sky was falling. And it did on 9/11/01.

I just got back from the Freedom Center in downtown Cincinnati, not far from our home. In 2001, a Cincinnati-based Delta Airlines flight attendant named Tonya Hoggard decided that following 9/11, she NEEDED to go to NYC. And while she met many of the firefighters who survived, and who worked at the site, she, for one reason or another, decided to do SOMETHING. What Tonya did was to collect all the letters, cards and posters that kids wrote to FDNY and collect them for a future exhibit. A LOT of them.

Now, I said she is a flight attendant. And when I say collect, I mean several TONS of these letters...nearly one million...no kidding. And while I could tell you about the last 4 years of her venture being a lonely mission costing her loads of her own cash, the bottom line is that on Wednesday, September 6, 2006-an exhibit opened in the beautiful National Freedom Center. A FIRST CLASS "proud to be an American" EXHIBIT that rivals any I have seen. Check it out at: http://www.freedomcenter.org/.Teri and I were deeply moved by this exhibit that will be open through the holidays. Plan on going to Cincinnati for whatever reason-or even if you don't have a reason-this exhibit for families is a must see.

So why did I tell you about that? Because someone who had NOTHING to do with 9/11, firefighting or whatever did SOMETHING.

Also on September 6, right next door to the FDNY "10 House" (Engine10, Ladder 10), the Tribute Center opened up. A project of The September 11th Families' Association, http://www.911families.org, this is an AMAZING visitor and learning center at 120 Liberty Street in New York across the street from the World Trade Center site. Tribute is a place where visitors can learn about the events of February 26, 1993 and September 11, 2001...from those who know - the friends and family of firefighters, police officers and civilians who were murdered on 9/11 through the voices of many individuals in the exhibitions and programs. Tribute and their incredible guides will inform, educate and provide a place for reflection as the mission of the Tribute Center project is to create an immersive interaction for visitors who visit the World Trade Center site to try and find a connection between themselves and the experience. Learn from those who know, not some street vendor hawking photos and "tours". Planning on being in NYC? You, as a firefighter, have no choice but to visit The Tribute Center: http://tributenyc.org.

Those are two very positive examples of helping all of us to NEVER FORGET...and there are many, many others. So many firehouses across the USA, Canada and the world have established plans or have memorials-so that people don't forget.

On the other hand, I sometimes get dismayed that so many folks have absolutely forgotten. When I see what the NYC based September 11th Families Association did as well as what folks like Tonya did ...it gives us hope. Hope that civilians see their efforts and remember and actually give a damn. Now, before we go thinking it's a public problem, let's look at ourselves and those who are involved with us.

Let's start with NEVER FORGETTING when it comes to the Department of Homeland Security. Do they do some great stuff? Absolutely. Are they better because FEMA is now headed by a FIRE CHIEF? Duh.

However, once again we saw a recent example of FORGETTING when DHS, for whatever lame reason they gave, delayed the FIRE ACT GRANTS almost 6 months longer than some past years. Is that a big deal? I guess it depends on what FD you belong to. I guess the issue of federal funding mattered when, earlier this year, DHS CUT Washington DC and NYC Homeland Security funding because there was (my words) not much worth protecting. The feds used some fancier words but that's essentially what they said. Wonderful.

And back to the FIRE Act Grants. Does that matter? If your FD is driving a 30-year-old pumper with half your members not having bunker gear and the other half not having SCBA's...yep, that matters. And when funding for that stuff is delayed-it very well could cost lives. No drama - just FACT.

So what does that have to do with the 5th Anniversary of 9/11. Let's keep going.

Interoperability. How about that word. Talk about abused. Every joker on the block has something to help us (sell us) with that. Tons of cash spent on new radio systems so fire can talk to the cops and the cops can talk to us and we can all talk to whomever. A big deal? Sure - just as soon as firefighters and fire officers can talk to each other inside and outside of a building fire, on the same block, I'll make sure the next call I take after that comes from the police advising me of a road hazard 45 miles away. So 9/11 did get us radios that allegedly allow "all" the agencies to talk to each other (as long as you can find channel C-7, talkgroup B, sub-group H) but I think we still have a long ways to go on getting affordable, easy to use/understand fire radios.

Interoperability II. Playing nice with each other. This is the "other" interoperability that affects "those" fire departments that won't work with each other for those "really good" reasons. You know the FD that 30 years ago, following the annual turkey and pig roast, the former chiefs wife might have had an affair with the captains son's Uncle out back....and since that dreadful evening, the 2 FD's don't like calling each other for mutual aid. Or the volunteer FD that won't call "those paid bastards" even if the building burns down...or the career fire department that will skip over some of "those volunteer bastards" stations in favor of "career professionals" when help is needed-even thought they are 20 miles away.

The issue of us working together seems to be getting better - sometimes for the right - and sometimes for the wrong... reasons.

The right reasons are that many chiefs and FD's understand that working with each other has nothing to do with liking each other and who gets paid what and everything to do with what's best for Mrs. Smith. It's about talking care of the really bad day she is having. OR when terror strikes.

The wrong reasons are that many fire departments, SINCE 9/11 have had their stations shut down, staffing cut, training cut and whatever other raping some clueless folks in City Hall felt was needed. This has FORCED more mutual aid and more resources that get stretched thinner and thinner. With what happened on 9/11 predictably happening again somewhere in the USA soon - HOW can anyone who serves the public "in a suit" think about doing ANYTHING other than making sure that their FIRST RESPONDERS (which is actually FIREFIGHTERS in when translated) are the best staffed and the best trained? Don't think it will be needed? Wait and see. Think the Feds will be there and bail you out? Google KATRINA.

Firefighter training. Since 9/11 almost every firefighter in the USA has had a chance to enjoy a free trip to Alabama, New Mexico or Nevada. Good training? Absolutely - outstanding training. But...wouldn't it be cool if chiefs could, just as easily, get their firefighters flashover training for free? Free engine and truck company operational training? How about how to drive your fire apparatus without getting killed training?

Maybe the Feds should cover all costs for Firehouse Expo and FDIC? Maybe those programs can be open year round in some manner? Sort of a hands-on and tactical classroom extension of the National Fire Academy. That kind of training is available in some states and regions - but it is not in many, many others.

Is basic firefighter training unrelated to 9/11? Please. Firefighters cannot succeed at providing services on terror related events if the leadership, training and staffing isn't there for the daily events. In other words, if a FD is barely able to handle a house fire, how is that FD gonna handle the WMD and terror related duties of "first responding"?

Never Forget? Civilians who never forget? I gave you an example of some who didn't forget in NY and Cincinnati. What about FIRE DEPARTMENTS AND FIREFIGHTERS who have forgotten what 9/11 was and what it means. Forgotten what it means is that we were attacked and thousands of Americans were murdered.

And just when I thought it was safe to think that FIREFIGHTERS would not forget, I get an e-mail from some firefighter friends asking for information about any 9/11 ceremony they could attend...since no one in their FD had anything planned. Huh? HOW can any FD not have anything planned? It costs NOTHING. So then what does it take? It takes a little effort and caring about being an American Firefighter. Actually taking an hour or so to hold a community or regional service/event/march or whatever so we REMEMBER. How can any FD NOT have something planned? On the other hand, if your FD has nothing planned...it says a lot about your FD.

There is no other "appropriate" group in any community than the FIREFIGHTERS to take the lead and make sure that there is always a memorial service and remembrance on 9/11. Another group of people who will never forget are the families who lost loved ones - but also the families who, but for the grace of God, did NOT lose a loved one. The families of the FDNY as well as the NYPD and PAPD. They did not forget, the kids still hold on tight for the last hug before leaving for work, and they make sure they get that call and to say goodnight. The spouses did not forget, the constant question of "when can you retire" is still out there. The parents of the firefighters didn't forget still asking "when are you working and when will you be home"?

In the days, months and years following 9/11/01, we (firefighters) all mourned (and still do) in our own way - but we mourned... as the events shocked us into action... to do "whatever we can" to help. Many attended FDNY funerals - to show our love and support. Many other firefighters rallied in their own communities to raise funds to help support the families of those lost in FDNY. We looked around and suddenly the politicians seemed to notice firefighters... most for their own personal agendas - nothing new. We wore t-shirts, hats, stickers and emblems with slogans such as "9-11-01: NEVER FORGET" and related items to display our HONOR, PRIDE and our ANGER. We even found ourselves flying the American flag more often-as we saw in all of our neighborhoods, American flags flying high. It was a bitter sweet time, as firefighters many felt "more" like firefighters - but on the other, much more important hand, firefighters were murdered and our Country was attacked.

Last week, I got one of those "forwarded to everyone so it takes me 37 minutes to scroll down to read this crap you sent me" e-mails the other day and, when I finally got to the bottom of it, it asked that "All Americans Should Fly Their Flags On 9/11 To Show Solidarity". On 9/11? Why wouldn't everyone fly the flag every day? Why does an e-mail like that get sent? Because right after 9/11 you couldn't BUY a flag - they were hot items...but right after that, the flags started to disappear. Look around your community...where are the flags?

And now, as 9-11-06 approaches - things look different. A lot different-and have looked different for a long time. The politicians have, in many cases, the ones who had forgotten who the FIREFIGHTERS were, are now up for re-election-and some very worried. So what do they do? Head for the firehouses. We aren't stupid. If a politician supported us, we know it. If they didn't-we know that to. Simple stuff.

So then, where we at?

Overall, the nation's fire service is better trained and better equipped since 9/11...but it may not be in proportion to the money that has been spent - but better, none the less. We are definitely more conscientious about how, once again, our jobs have expanded. And, we are more aware at how vulnerable we are. We have seen the consolidation of numerous agencies into the DHS-and while that may be good, we also know the fire service has paid for that with the "lost in the shuffle" United States Fire Administration. Our question has been that "if the nation's first responders are firefighters, how can the USFA be so small and almost missing off the organizational chart"? The only advocate we have at the highest level is FEMA Director and former fire chief Dave Paulison. But what happens after Dave?

And while being better trained and better equipped is important, none of that matters if we don't have enough better trained and equipped firefighters. None of it matters if the STAFFIING isn't there. How is the staffing now at your FD as opposed to pre-9/11? It's an easy litmus test. When help is needed, what and who are responding?

I guess the real answer to working toward all of us being better prepared nationally from a terror prevention and response standpoint isn't anything we don't already know. The 9/11 Commission report. Here is the summary of that report: < href="http://www.9-11commission.gov/report/911Report_Exec.htm">View It.

I remember an old fire chief friend of mine in Florida commenting about his boss asking his opinion and recommendations on issues. In his very simple, basic and almost always right words, his attitude was that if you want my opinion, you will get it...and when you get it, I would appreciate you following it or explaining to me why you don't need it...but please don't waste my time if you really don't want to know how to work on solving your problem.

I think my old friends logic applies to the 9/11 Commission. They made some very applicable, qualified and appropriate recommendations. Why hasn't every bit of it been acted upon and implemented?

I guess the last group of folks that all of this applies to are the ones reading this. Firefighter's anywhere in the USA. From NYC to Temecula, California and from Winthrop, Maine to Braden River, Florida...the job is still the job. And many of us think it is still the greatest job in the world -career, volunteer- whatever. Between the EMS runs, the automatic alarms, the fires and the crashes, life goes on for all of us but with an additional but different emotional layer since 9/11. A layer that almost all firefighters understand.

Before 9/11 we didn't think much about terrorism. Even when expert chiefs like the great Ray Downey was warning everyone, some looked at him as if he claimed that the sky was falling. And it did on 9/11/01. The sky fell. What Ray warned us about resulted in his (and 342 other firefighters) murder as well as the police officers, EMS workers and of course, the civilians. What Ray did to prepare so many - even those who wouldn't listen - saved thousands of lives. That "layer" that almost all of us as firefighters feel since 9/11 is that if the Ray Downey warnings that are still out there are not heeded...and the recommendations by other experts including those on the 9/11 Commission aren't followed, and if the City Hall folks don't listen to local fire chiefs and firefighters...the sky is going to fall again.