I think it’s fair to say that on September 10, 2001, the U.S. fire and emergency service—for the most part—hadn’t understood or accepted the threat from terrorism. The typical working environment hadn’t changed, so there was no need to change our operations or perspective.
The next morning, of course, the fire and emergency service, and the United States as a whole, saw the need for change recognizing the reality that threats can and do turn into action.
While the IAFC was offering some education on terrorism preparedness and mass casualty events prior to 9/11, the shift created by the events of that day went beyond tactical or leadership training. During the crisis and for a significant time afterward, the IAFC had to look at how the fire service would need to change to be able to prepare for and respond to a variety of possible threats.
The past 10 years demonstrates the success of the fire and emergency service to do what some still think is unthinkable: change.
Three main elements have contributed to this.
Leveraging Existing Skills
Before 9/11, many fire departments were already engaged in hazardous material response, but now the chemical, biological and nuclear threat was real. Building on our current hazmat capabilities provided a forum to take the deep dives into these more specific threats, as well as the opportunity to take a leadership role in national discussions on tactics and policy.
While this tact has served well in the area of terrorism, it speaks to a broader flexibility and ability to make connections across challenges that has served us further. Continuing the hazmat example, it’s our ability to build on what’s worked that has allowed us to address new challenges, such as the emergence of alternative fuels, with speed and relative ease.
Sharing What We Know
In some cases, responders became more insular after 9/11 as increasing levels of information and tactics became perceived as matters of national security. The fire service, on the other hand, took a step into the fray. We not only identified what worked for us, like incident command and mutual aid, but also championed its use across disciplines.
In addition to long-term contributions to such national plans as the National Incident Management System and the National Response Framework, the IAFC continues to manage programs for the fire service and other public-safety disciplines to work together, train and prepare. A recent example is the Training for Regional Collaboration (TReC) Program, a multidisciplinary, stakeholder-driven training program currently in development, which is designed to enhance local, regional and national collaboration and capabilities for preventing, responding to and recovering from an all-hazards incident.
Joining the Conversation
Convincing the powers in Washington that the local fire and emergency service had a stake in the issue of terrorism prevention and response was a long and challenging road, made up of countless meetings, conference calls, Congressional testimony and more. While the past 10 years has clearly created a seat for the fire service at the national policy table, we can never let up in ensuring that our voice is heard if we want to ensure our communities have the protection they need.
Our work and willingness to engage stakeholders openly and honestly has not only opened doors in the area of homeland security, but has also led to a greater role for the fire and emergency service in other national emergency-response areas, such as natural disasters. It has also led to improved relationships with other public-safety disciplines, which has allowed us to work more closely for common public-safety goals, such as improvements in emergency-communication capabilities.
In reality, evolution may be a better word than change. Change suggests an instant and distinct difference, whereas evolution is a gradual building on what works, with the result being something new but familiar.
When you think about it, it’s a lot like the healing process. The evolution of the fire service has mirrored—or maybe even directly contributed to—our ability to heal. We have treated the wound with action; we have bound it, exercised it and gradually made it stronger. We have created something new, but familiar, for those who will call on us to help in their hour of need.
John Buckman is chief of the German Township Fire Department in Evansville, Ind. He was president of the IAFC at the time of 9/11.