The terrorist attacks that killed thousands of civilians and hundreds of firefighters, scores of other responders, citizens of 78 countries died in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania is now twenty years removed. And although it happened on American soil, the whole world watched and was affected, which is why the entire world is in solidarity as we remember this date.
It was more than just one attack, and it was more than just one building. The World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania claimed almost 3,000 lives.
I am sure most of us remember where we were on that fateful day; as a captain working at our headquarters in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, I can recall lifting my head from the computer and thinking it seemed quiet for Station #1 with three firefighting crews, administrative, prevention, communications, and mechanical staff all working form the same location.
I got up from my computer, walked around the building, and found most of our staff congregated around one of the TVs in the station, watching the towers on fire. Senior command staff was sequestered to prepare for similar attacks on other cities and airports within a few minutes. Airports immediately started to readjust flights, and many planes were diverted from the U.S. to Canada. Quickly our hotels filled up with unexpected travelers. As a result, many Canadians opened their homes to travelers not only from the U.S. but many other countries who were planning to fly into airports across the U.S.
All public safety facilities, including ours, were put into lockdown for what seemed to be a very long day; following the initial response, many firefighters and other first responders made their way to ground zero and the surrounding area to offer support. As many of us watched the fire rage and eventually saw them collapse, we all felt grief for the responders and community members in and around the building, those at the Pentagon, and the flight that went down. As a fire officer, I had never experienced reacting in such a way in the past for events unfolding in another country.
We all knew that many families were affected and that the world would never be the same.
In an interview for Time magazine, former President George W. Bush, reflected “I don’t spend a lot of time psychoanalyzing myself. I just know that when you’re the leader of an organization, you’ve got to be resolute, compassionate, and you’ve got to know what you need to do. And I knew what we needed to do. I knew we needed to use all resources of our government to defend the American people.”
As the president of the IAFC, which represents chief officers from across the globe, I encourage you to reflect on this date; we must be vigilant and double down on our efforts to protect our firefighters/staff, our organizations, and our communities from whatever threatens them. As I write this, there are firefighters and support members from many counties supporting their colleagues in communities across the U.S. and Canada threatened by wildland fires, hurricanes, and floods.
On September 11th, we will remember all the families and communities that lost so much. But, as leaders, we must not be crippled by events that challenge us today or in the past. It is important to remember the past and learn from it to be better prepared for the future. The IAFC has been a leader during the last 20 years and worked closely with governments and other public safety agencies since 9/11 to better protect our communities and firefighters. Because of the events of 9/11, we now have better communications and interoperability and deploy resources to assist our neighbors faster and more effectively than ever before. We work to be prepared for what we never thought possible between emergencies so that when we are needed, we are ready.
In the same Time interview project, Chief of Counterterrorism and Emergency Preparedness, FDNY, Joseph Pfeifer, recalled, “Many of the firefighters who went up there, it was the last time we saw them. But they went up. They went up and climbed the narrow stairs to help those that were in their greatest moment of need.” You can watch his panel discussion at Fire-Rescue International 2021 here or below.
Chief Pfeifer’s words ring true today. In peaceful times and times of war and turmoil, our job is to meet people on the worst day of their life and help.
As you reflect on and remember the horrific events of September 11, 2001, also remember your duty to your community. Remember that at any time, you might be called on to respond to another September 11th. Do it with honor and a sense of duty that compelled 343 firefighters to run up those narrow stairs.
Fire Chief Ken Stuebing is the IAFC President and Chairman of the Board