The morning of September 11, 2001, was one of those defining moments in which we all remember where we were and what we were doing. I was sitting at my desk when our EMS training officer came in and said, “Chief, have you seen what’s going on in New York City?”
Not knowing what he was talking about, I followed him to the TV in the officer’s room; we stood there amazed as the second plane came into the picture and slammed into the South Tower and news of the Pentagon reached us.
I’ll never forget that moment or the look on John’s face as he asked me what I thought was going on. I’ll always remember the feeling in my gut that told me clearly we were under attack and likely by Al Qaeda.
In retrospect, I don’t know how I knew that: perhaps from snippets on the news or an FBI briefing I attended in Boston a few months earlier. I just knew. I knew in that instant—as you did too—that the world had changed and the fire and emergency service along with it.
The days and months that followed were like no others we had faced before as we all struggled with logistics to get help to New York, our community’s fears and our personal grief.
The years that have followed have also been like no other in our profession’s history, with the unprecedented and rapid evolution—in both perception and practice—from “local firefighters” to “national, all-hazard responders.”
It’s the right role for the fire and emergency service, evident from the leadership the fire service has shown on the national level in ensuring our local communities are protected from any threat, natural or manufactured, that has come our way in the intervening years.
Unfortunately, in the current economy, the tide is turning again. Ten years, billions of dollars in national debt and local budgets cut to the bone are blurring the clarity with which the United States saw the role of first responders since that horrible day. So what’s the future of the fire and emergency service’s role in homeland security?
As I conclude my term as president of the IAFC, I can think of many national- and international-level issues that are going to greatly impact the fire and emergency service’s capability to address the security of our communities. At the same time, I’m wise enough to realize there are many issues that none of us can even imagine right now.
So in that regard, I think our future isn’t so well summed up as “What?” but as “How?”
We’ll never forget 9/11, and we’ll always remember those who died and those who were injured on that day and in its aftermath. But how do we do that—how do we remember—as our world changes and new threats and priorities present themselves?
Never forget that this can—and likely will—happen again, though the circumstances may be quite different. Consider the very recent bombing and mass shooting in Oslo: nearly 100 people lost because of one man full of hate. Regardless of the size and scope, we must remain vigilant to any threat and be prepared to face it.
Always remember that people look to us when all hope is lost. Whether it’s a terrorist attack or a heart attack, we need to maintain and exercise our capabilities in ways that don’t leverage fear and anger. It’s easy to get caught up on the narrative of divisiveness, but our responders and communities deserve better.
Never forget what we can accomplish when we work together. Since 9/11, the fire and emergency service has made incredible progress in integrating collaboration—across political boundaries, national borders, department type, labor-management and more—into our culture.
As the economy shrinks, it seems so too does our capacity for working together. Our success in the future depends upon our ability to continue to work together, let go of the prejudices of the past and leverage the strengths that each of us bring.
In Command of Emotions
As I look back on 9/11, I can still remember the emotions running through me then: sadness, anger, fear, helplessness, a lack of control. In my travels, I see so much of that in chiefs today, albeit for very different reasons.
While these feelings are understandable, we must remember that our professional responsibility requires that we remain in command of our emotions. The anniversary of 9/11 reminds us what can be accomplished when we channel our emotions into a force for progressive and positive change.
With Courage and Conviction
Never forget that courage takes many forms: the courage to run in while others run out, to stand up for what you believe in, to fight and prevent disease. It’s the courage to carry on in the face of adversity, to lead into the unknown and be a positive force of change.
No one chooses life in the fire service without a deep conviction to serve and the belief that one person—in an instant—can change the course of another’s life for the better. Courage and conviction go hand-in-hand in meeting any challenge that lies ahead.
With a Strong Voice
I remember that 10 years ago, the fire and emergency service was largely content to let others define our role on the national stage. If I had to pick one area where I have seen the most significant change in the fire service over the past 10 years, that will most greatly impact our future and that can’t be retreated from, it’s our demand to be heard. Homeland security to wildland fire policy, federal infrastructure to federal funding grants, fire prevention measures to responder health and safety: fire and emergency service leaders have a voice that can’t be silenced.
I’m very proud of the roll the IAFC and its members have played in this last one particularly, and I’m humbled by my opportunity to serve as president and chairman of the board. I thank each of you for allowing me to play such a role in making our voice heard.
As we move forward into an uncertain future, I am certain of one thing: you, my fellow members of the IAFC, will continue to meet any challenge and set the path forward.
Jack Parow, MA, EFO, CFO, is the IAFC’s president and chairman of the board.