Big Things Do Happen In Small Fire Departments

Oct. 1, 2003
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 devastating incident took place at 10:06 A.M., when United Airlines Flight 93 augured into the Pennsylvania soil.
Photo Courtesy of Shanksville VFD Members of the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department pose with their "Memorial Tanker."

In that instant, something big happened someplace small.

The plane crashed two miles from Shanksville, PA, a borough of 250 people with a surrounding rural population of around 2,500 people. Shanksville Assistant Fire Chief Rick King was on the telephone with his sister, talking about events that had already happened 250 miles away in New York and 150 miles away in Washington, D.C., when he and his sister both heard a plane go over. King's house suddenly shook.

"Oh my God, it crashed!" his sister exclaimed.

"I saw the fireball go up in the sky and I knew I had to go," said King.

King responded to the station and hopped into the department's engine. He knew he would be the initial incident commander. Chief Terry Shaffer, who works for Pepsi-Cola 30 miles away in Johnstown, would not get on scene for at least half an hour. Shaffer's wife contacted him at work, telling him he needed to get home because there had been a very bad accident.

Extra Aid Called

"I started to get myself together as we responded, started thinking about things like rescue and using foam to put out aircraft fuel fires," King recalled. He also radioed for assistance from four additional fire departments and all ambulance crews in Somerset County plus ambulances from the neighboring county. That call gave him eight fire departments and a total of 20 fire and ambulance units plus the county's hazardous materials unit.

"Knowing what was going on in New York and Washington, D.C., in the back of my mind I thought somehow this was related," said King.

Kevin Huzsek, a medic for the Somerset Area Ambulance, was on board the first ambulance heading to the scene.

"We were watching news about the other events. When the alarm came in for a large aircraft down, our first thoughts were, this can't be," said Huzsek, who explained that the plane went down in an area where there have been numerous alarms for accidents involving smaller two- or three-passenger aircraft

"When we pulled out of the ambulance garage and saw the black mushroom cloud, we knew this was indeed something big," Huzsek said. "Our first thoughts were about setting up triage and transport operations and making certain we had enough ambulances."

Shaffer remembers listening to radio conversations of the responding units as he made his way toward the black cloud on the horizon and hearing responders tell each other to prepare themselves. "This will be like nothing we have ever seen before," he heard responders say over the radio.

"I kept thinking about my people, wondering what kind of a crew we'd get at this time of day and praying that we had the strength to get through this," Shaffer said.

The all-volunteer fire department's 27 active members respond to 130 alarms annually, with half the alarms being EMS calls and 90% of the fire calls involving motor vehicle accidents. Until 9/11, the kind of atrocity the community and its volunteer firefighters found themselves embroiled in was something unheard of, certainly not the kind of thing one thinks of happening in rural America.

Once on scene, rather than a mangled aircraft fuselage, King found a huge crater with a lot of debris scattered around it. Smoldering trees and brush ringed the crater. The largest intact piece of wreckage he remembered seeing was a wheel. "My thought when I jumped from the engine was, where is it?" said King.

King and the firefighters with him did an initial search and within minutes determined this would not be a rescue, but instead a recovery operation. That meant turning back much of the mutual aid help that had been summoned to the incident.

When Shaffer arrived on scene, though King had established command and implemented an incident command system, everything appeared chaotic. Representatives from the many agencies that would be involved in the disaster, spectators, and other emergency personnel were already inundating the scene.

"The pungent smell of jet fuel laced with the unforgettable smell of burnt human flesh was something we will never forget," Shaffer recalled of his initial observation of the crash site. "We felt helpless, numb, there wasn't anything we could do to help anyone. I don't think anyone could ever have imagined the amount of destruction we saw."

Flight 93 was carrying 21 tons of fuel, enough for a coast-to-coast flight, making it a giant bomb. All 33 passengers and seven crewmembers, not counting the four terrorists aboard, were lost.

Officers at the FBI field office in Johnstown had been notified of the hijacking and the crash. In 45 minutes, they were on scene. Management of the disaster took on a whole different composure when the FBI declared it a crime scene and pushed everyone back. A meeting of all agencies involved in the incident was held at a building on site that ended up serving as the command post for the duration of operations. Everyone put their heads together and from that point the FBI assumed complete control. A special agent from the FBI was in charge.

Perimeters Established

"It took a while for it to sink in that the same people who crashed the planes into the twin towers and the Pentagon were the same people who had crashed our plane, but it couldn't have gone down in a better place," Shaffer said. "It hit in a large field that had formerly been a coal strip cut. There was minimal damage to homes in the area and no loss of life on the ground."

Two perimeters were set up by the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) to keep unauthorized people out. There was an inner perimeter right at the crash site and an outer perimeter that encompassed 10 square miles and was staffed by 250 PSP officers. The press was allowed to set up in a "media village" a half-mile from the scene. Shaffer noted that the response of major media to the incident was seemingly instantaneous.

Estimates are that an average of 1,500 people from 74 different agencies, including the FBI, PSP, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) and others, were working the crash site.

In the mix of operations was the Shanksville Fire Department. The department's involvement in operations at the incident would not terminate for 21/2 weeks. Its station, which was only two miles from the site, was staffed 24/7 during the investigation. By the time operations were officially terminated, the department's 27 members had logged 5,907 hours assisting with the investigation. Shaffer and King both said that employers were cooperative about giving the volunteers time off from work so they could help out as needed.

With investigators beside them, Shanksville firefighters used chainsaws to cut away brush so authorities could get at aircraft parts in the brush or hanging in trees and they used their extrication equipment to open parts up for authorities. Spot fires continued to erupt for several days from the jet fuel and smoldering brush, something else the Shanksville firefighters had to contend with. Shanksville firefighters also took part in body part recovery operations alongside the evidence recovery team, something Shaffer said became more traumatic for firefighters when victim photos began appearing in the news.

The Somerset Area Ambulance staffed ambulances 24/7 at several different locations at the scene for the duration of the investigation. Ambulance personnel did not participate as directly in the investigation as firefighters, but they did provide treatment for everything from bruises to a cardiac arrest.

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.

As is normally noted following any major incident, communications were a problem initially. The dispatch center for Shanksville serves four counties. Operations channels quickly filled with interference. Shaffer said some agencies were also on different frequencies without the capabilities of interfacing. Those problems were resolved with the resource center set up by the local EMA and communications equipment brought in by other agencies.

No Place Is Immune

The crash of Flight 93 can undoubtedly be viewed as a big-city incident that happened in small-town America. The crash stands as vivid proof that no area of our country is immune from "the big one." Disasters, either manmade or natural, can happen anywhere, even in the smallest of fire districts. On a contemporary note, with the acts of renegade terrorists a locus of attention, few, if any, fire districts can consider themselves immune from the threat of terrorism. Contamination of a food or water supply by terrorists is a big concern among government officials and the fact that much of our nation's food supply is produced in rural areas protected by small fire departments makes disaster management even more significant to the small fire department.

History has shown that remote areas are those that terrorists seek out for preparatory activities connected with their devious acts. The "Unabomber," Ted Kaczynski, built his mail bombs in a secluded area of mountainous Montana. Timothy McVeigh tested and built his deadly bomb used on the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in a remote area also.

Given that an incident of the magnitude experienced by Shanksville can happen anywhere, there are 10 points every small fire department and community must consider in preparation for successful management of a disaster: establish what constitutes a disaster, incident management systems, emergency management systems, your jurisdiction's responsibility, personnel, dealing with the media, training, preparation, logistics and communications

Establish what constitutes a disaster. There is a scalar relationship in determining what would be considered a disaster. Though an airline crash anywhere in the United States would be determined a disaster, a disaster on a local level can be viewed as any incident that overwhelms local resources. To determine at what point an incident is declared a disaster, local emergency response capabilities need to be assessed. How many fire and ambulance crews can you place on scene in five minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes? How many victims can local medical facilities manage?

For many rural and small jurisdictions, an emergency with a dozen victims becomes a mass-casualty incident and a disaster. You could have that many casualties just from a bad accident. The first step is disaster management is defining what constitutes a disaster in your jurisdiction, then planning accordingly.

Incident management systems. Operating without a system of incident management is the second disaster following the disaster. Information and education about incident management systems and their use have saturated the fire service in recent decades. There isn't a fire department in this country that hasn't been exposed to information about incident management systems. Use of an incident management system is not an option. From a safety and operational effectiveness standpoint use of an incident management system is mandatory.

Use of incident management systems is not just for "the big one." If the system is pulled off the shelf and implemented only on the rare but large incident, its application will be cumbersome at best. When used on every incident, no matter how small, application of the system on the largest, most unimaginable disaster becomes easier.

In setting up and establishing an incident management system for a disaster, size-up is critical. Obtain a thorough assessment of the situation and the whole big picture before diving in. Firefighters are Type A, action-oriented, we-want-to-help-right-now kind of people. In the overwhelming specter of a disaster it's easy to lose sight of the fact that there may be something nasty in the air or on the ground, or something that could collapse and further compound the disaster by injuring or killing emergency responders. A thorough size-up is also critical to establishing the amount and level of additional resources that will be needed.

Emergency management systems. Every community or small fire department in the country falls under the folds of a emergency management system, usually under the management of a local emergency management office (EMA). Plans have probably been developed for application to disasters at the county or parish level and for certain the state level. Maybe the plan is collecting dust on a bookshelf at the fire station or being used as a doorstop in the mayor's office, but the time to blow the dust off and familiarize yourself with it is not when a tornado has just flattened half the structures in your fire district or someone just blew up city hall. An hour or two perusing the plan and a brief training session for volunteers on what the plan is all about will reap huge dividends when implementation of the plan is actually needed.

When "the big one" happens, you become part of a bigger system. Your department's incident management system plugs into the larger scenario playing out. Make certain you understand the system and your department's role.

A fire department will find itself, like Shanksville, working with agencies and people you may never have imagined would be involved in a disaster incident. Agencies like the EPA, FEMA, the FBI, the National Guard, public health, etc., will show up depending on the nature of the incident. Some may have jurisdiction over your incident and your department. Knowing who these key players are and how your department will interface with them before "the big one" is integral to smooth operations at the incident.

Your jurisdiction's responsibility. The FBI, the CIA, EPA, FEMA, the National Guard, the governor and a host of officials with big badges in their wallets may have shown up, but that doesn't mean you're done. You cannot absolve yourself of responsibility - the incident happened in your jurisdiction. Your department's leadership may not be at the peak of the command structure, but you will be in the command loop.

Where your department stands in the command structure is determined by the nature of the incident and disaster management plans. You won't go home until those above you tell you you're done. Have a plan in place for keeping personnel on scene for the duration of operations at the incident. This may mean you have to rely on mutual aid from a broad area.

Personnel. You will see things at a disaster you've never seen before and the insides of firefighters are going to hurt - they need emotional support. We've learned from past experiences in the fire and ambulance service that we can't expect our personnel to stow the ghastly things they experience inside indefinitely. Contact a CISD team immediately and have it on scene. Watch for clues that indicate personnel on your crews are experiencing stress. Make sure you give your people a break no matter how insistent they are to stay on. That's a problem with many fire and emergency people - they become so focused they will commit to an incident until they drop. Above all else, look out for your own people first and foremost at a disaster.

Dealing with the media. Like Shanksville, you will be under the watchful eye of local media for sure, probably the national, if not the worldwide media when "the big one" hits. Establish a PIO if possible and a secure area to keep the press in and away from critical incident operations and sensitive areas where there may be bodies or evidence.

One of the best ways to keep the newspeople at bay is by providing frequent updates and conferences. If you keep the press in limbo too long, reporters will go to extreme means to obtain information that may prove disruptive or embarrassing to the department. At the Flight 93 incident, the media were brought to the incident scene at an appropriate time on buses, so they could be controlled and would not wander. Shaffer advises it is critical to talk to the media as quickly as possible.

Training. Disaster training is different from normative fire department training. As far as hands-on operations at an incident, a fire department is probably not going to be called on to do anything it's not prepared for. What is required to grasp the concepts of how a disaster would be managed are incident simulations, usually done in the form of tabletop exercises.

Tabletop exercises, though not as exciting as a house burn, provide experience in disaster management and also interaction with key players in disaster incident management. Some local EMAs are good about conducting tabletop exercises and disaster simulations on an annual basis.

Preparation. You may be small, but that does not mean you are incompetent or unable. Successful management of a large disaster is possible even in the smallest fire and emergency jurisdictions with proper preparation, primarily in the way of training and agreements for aid. That's one of King's observations: "If a fire department is on top of things with its training, you'll have the knowledge and ability to do the things you have to do, you just can't do it by yourself, you need more help."

Determine as much as possible prior to an incident, particularly for target hazards, what the requirements would be for personnel, equipment and facilities. In other words, pre-plan, have a blueprint to follow in the event the once-in-a-lifetime disaster occurs.

Be involved with your local emergency management agency. In some instances, in the more remote areas or areas that have not prioritized emergency management, a small fire department may be the local emergency response agency. Nonetheless, being involved will help to familiarize your department with EMA procedures. Another benefit of involvement with the local EMA is being able to access resources available through the EMA.

The federal government's Homeland Security initiatives are pumping major funds into local EMAs in an effort to bolster our country's preparedness for dealing with disaster incidents, particularly terrorism. Your department may be able to access funds for equipment and training from these funds.

"I can't say enough about our local EMA," Shaffer said. "I don't know what we would have done without them."

Logistics. The logistical support it takes to manage a disaster incident as demonstrated with the crash of Flight 93 is huge. If there's one big advantage to a resource-taxing incident such as an airliner crash happening in rural America, it's the can-do attitude of people who are used to operating on their own and having to use their resourcefulness to overcome resource deficits. Shaffer said that community support was incredible. The Shanksville fire station was so filled with supplies from people locally and indeed from all over the country that members couldn't get the trucks inside.

A small fire department needs procedures and contacts it can use to activate logistical support. The time spent putting a resource book together that lists all the pertinent contacts will spare precious time and confusion once the resources are actually needed.

Communications. When "the big one" happens is not a good time to discover your radio communications capabilities don't allow you to talk with state police or emergency management representatives. Inadequate communications capabilities can be attributed to the bungling of at least as many incidents as mismanagement. Get together with all agencies likely to be key players in a disaster incident in your jurisdiction and see who can talk to who and who can't, then go about fixing the loopholes.


The effects of the crash of Flight 93 on the Shanksville Fire Department and the community will linger indefinitely. Visitors all ask questions.

"Our town will never be the same," Shaffer said. "It will always be linked to that day."

Activity in the department has dropped off some following the crash according to Shaffer, but the department has experienced no loss of members. Control over the crash site was not relinquished to Somerset County until August 2003, making it the longest-held crime scene in the history of Pennsylvania.

As a tribute to the crash victims the Shanksville Fire Department dedicated a new "Memorial Tanker" in their memory in 2002. The rig carries 3,000 gallons of water and bears a plaque with the names of all victims on the side of the truck along with an American flag emblem for each passenger and crew member on the plane.

The Somerset Area Ambulance is also outfitting a mass-casualty/disaster response trailer.

"The Quecreek Rescue, 9/11, floods we experienced in 1996 and two tornadoes in 1998 have pointed out the need for the equipment," said Huzsek.

The county was again the focus of the world media attention a year after 9/11 when the Quecreek mine rescue was undertaken to rescue nine miners trapped in a coal mine. Emergency response units from Somerset where not directly involved but were on standby in case their assistance was needed.

Local Author's Book Tells the Flight 93 Story

Courage After The Crash, a book written by local author Dr. Glen J. Kashburba, documents the community of Shanksville's involvement in the Flight 93 incident. Included in the book are interviews with local emergency responders. The book can be purchased for $35 from the Somerset Area Ambulance, P.O. Box 615, Somerset, PA 15501.

Steve Meyer, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been a member of the Garrison, IA, Volunteer Fire Department for 22 years, serving as chief since 1985. He is past president of the Iowa Fire Chiefs Association. Meyer is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program, and is a contract instructor for leadership and administration with the NFA. In 1998, he was presented the State of Iowa Firefighter of the Year award.

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