It is difficult to imagine that the attacks of 9/11 occurred 20 years ago. Emergency managers build systems to mitigate the potental impacts of disasters on communities. An emergency manager’s job is to plan for the worst and prepare communities for that one moment when it is time to lead. The memory of walking into the New Jersey Emergency Operation Center on September 11, 2001 and seeing the devastation as it unfolded is vivid in my mind. Patriot Day is a day that conjures memories of the lives lost as well as the nation’s subsequent recovery from that devastating event.
The changes in the emergency management profession over the past few decades have been extensive and largely due to lessons learned and research to ensure evidence-based emergency operations. Many who worked in emergency management on that day have retired or moved on to other positions. However, there are many lessons learned that should not be forgotten. The most important is that it takes a community to effectively plan for, respond to, and recover from a disaster.
The whole nation remembers those that passed and the devastation of the attacks on the United States. However, there is another side to the story. The country shared the experience of being attacked and the experience of recovering. The nation and each community within it effectively recovered from the worst attack on domestic soil.
With days and years of recovery operations and stories of those who were committed to an effective recovery, it is so important to remember and highlight the successful recovery initiatives in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Thousands of responders, emergency managers, disaster recovery specialists, and citizens addressed the initial needs of the impacted communities, rebuilt infrastructure, and still remember all who passed. Many remain in operation today to ensure that the nation never forgets.
One World Trade Center (Source: iStock.com/demerzel21).
A Sense of Community
The events of 9/11 modified the understanding of how people react to disasters that impact a community. For the most part, the evacuation and recovery were done with a sense of community engagement that was somewhat unexpected.
For weeks and months following the attacks, the public worked together in ways that were unprecedented. According to the NY Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, over 90,000 personnel worked on the pile in recovery operations. In addition, there were untold numbers of workers in Manhattan and surrounding communities in New York and New Jersey. A significant number of responders suffered or are suffering from chronic or debilitating illness from their response efforts.
Emergency managers strive to recognize the potental for crisis and prepare for the impact of a disaster to a community. However, it takes the entire community to engage in mitigation and readiness efforts. Communities must share responsibility for sustainability, resilience, and preparedness for emergency operations. Residents, civic leaders, and businesses are instrumental in ensuring sustainability and resilience.
For emergency managers to mitigate and ensure a community’s resilience, they must build relationships with both public and private sector leaders. Resilience is dependent on the acceptance of the measures. Public cooperation and compliance diminish if there is a lack of information available and no prior consensus. Emergency managers today must build consensus among the public to build trust that there is an effective plan for emergency operations. Local emergency planning committees are the key to facilitating relationships between all stakeholders and emergency managers.
Data Leads to Efficiency
Another lesson learned that has withstood the test of time is that the collection, analysis, and presentation of information are all essential to the decision-making process, and so is the ability to present such information. In 2001, the use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) facilitated the collection and analysis of information in a very small timeframe. It also provided the opportunity to share information with leadership who needed to make informed decisions. As response and recovery efforts formed, GIS specialists in the NJ Emergency Operations Center and at the Javits Center began to develop maps to identify the properties that were impacted, areas that were searched, locations of fires, etc. GIS also allowed for a common operating picture. Recovery from the 9/11 attacks is one of the first times that emergency management used GIS in such a way to help tell the story and manage the information flow. This allowed detailed briefings to the governor and policymakers on an ongoing basis.
Today, evidence-based emergency management requires research into the threat and the potential impact on a community. Emergency managers should develop emergency operations strategies based on appropriate hazard-identification and risk-analysis processes. Understanding threats and the ability to present such information to policymakers and the public is critical to successful response and recovery operations. The development of plans, policies, and procedures based on validated capabilities help promote public respect for and trust placed in emergency managers.
In times of large-scale disaster, creativity and ingenuity can lead to success. The response to the 9/11 attacks was not totally unplanned. This was the second attack on the World Trade Center. However, no one until then had expected this level of devastation. The response was outside the standard playbook, yet responders found ways to meet these needs. Bridges were closed and people evacuating Manhattan had to do so on foot or via boat. Hundreds of thousands were evacuated via small and large boats. Without hesitation, ship captains responded to the area to assist.
However, suggesting responders use ingenuity is not suggesting that freelancing is acceptable. Utilizing available resources to meet incident objectives in a creative fashion requires emergency managers to coordinate such efforts. Networking allows emergency authorities to evaluate resources and creatively deploy them to fulfill unmet needs.
Public safety is a culture of symbols and traditions. Symbols are important and helpful. They provide a powerful reminder of a time, a place, a memory, a feeling, and a promise. For emergency managers, the symbols of the attacks on September 11, 2001 must be a reminder and a promise to always be prepared and ready to act without hesitation. Engagement can ensure a resilient community that together can respond to and recover from the impacts of a crisis.