The final report issued by the 9/11 Commission is a devastating indictment of the government agencies that failed to detect and prevent the terrorist attacks that took the lives of 2,973 people, including 347 firefighters. The 450-page document traces the sometimes clumsy planning and training of the terrorists and bluntly states: “We see little evidence that the progress of the plot was disturbed by any government action. The U.S. government was unable to capitalize on mistakes made by al Qaeda. Time ran out.”
That’s when local fire departments suddenly became the front line in the war on terrorism. According to the Commission, when the intelligence agencies, law enforcement and airport security failed to stop the hijackers, first responders became the “last best hope” for people working in or visiting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Thousands of lives were saved by the heroic efforts of firefighters, police and EMS personnel but, the report notes, “it came at a tremendous cost of first responder lives lost.”
The lead response agency was the fire department and all others acted in supporting roles. The Commission points out the difficulties that faced New York firefighters as they responded to “an unimaginable catastrophe” taking place 1,000 feet above the street. Nevertheless, a majority of the occupants below the fiery impact zones were safely evacuated before the towers collapsed.
But there were terrible obstacles to overcome. Pulling no punches, the report cites the old problem of radios failing to work in the high-rise buildings and FDNY’s communications being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of radio traffic. There was a critical lack of communication and coordination between the fire department and other agencies, especially the police, and no effective unified command center that could take overall control and coordinate all of the agencies involved. Each had its own command system and “information that was critical to informed decision making was not shared among agencies.”
In contrast to the World Trade Center, the Pentagon is a five-story building that sits by itself in the middle of a huge parking lot complex; companies responding to the scene were able to reach and fight the fire. However, there were problems similar to New York with radio channels being saturated and confusion caused by units and individuals who responded on their own, without the knowledge of dispatchers or the incident commander.
Despite those problems, the Arlington County Fire Department’s incident command system took control and coordinated operations that involved federal agencies as well as scores of fire companies from Northern Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. The report credits the success of the response to an incident command system that had been planned on a regional basis. All of the jurisdictions had trained together and used ICS almost every day when responding to mutual aid calls for major fires and accidents. They knew each other and were accustomed to working together.
Most of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations deal with critical flaws in the nation’s intelligence and federal law enforcement agencies, but they also made several aimed directly at first responders. One is that federal money should go to cities that are the most likely targets. While acknowledging that every state and city wants a share of the homeland security funds, the report warns: “Congress should not use this money as a pork barrel.” That, of course, is exactly what Congress wants to do and the Commission calls for a panel of security experts to develop benchmarks that will determine community needs and how the funds should be allocated.
Another vital recommendation is that all emergency response agencies should adopt the incident command system and, when multiple agencies or jurisdictions are involved, there must be a unified command. Existing mutual aid plans have to be strengthened and expanded to cover entire regions. The Commission strongly supports the decision that “all federal homeland security funding will be contingent upon the adoption and regular use of ICS and unified command procedures.” It is inconceivable that a fire department of any size would not have an incident command system at this stage of the game, but anything is possible. However, starting next month, no ICS will mean no money from the Department of Homeland Security.
The 9/11 Commission’s recommendations to change the intelligence and law enforcement agencies have touched off a hot political debate. But there should not be any argument over the few recommendations that cover first responders; they make sense and should be implemented as fast as possible. Every fire chief and senior officer should read the 9/11 Report and apply the lessons learned to their own department.
Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.