Home Sept. 11, 2001 Ten years after 9/11, it’s a different world for first responders

Ten years after 9/11, it’s a different world for first responders

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Greeley is a long way from ground zero, but the events of Sept. 11, 2001, continue to reverberate, even 2,000 miles inland. From enduring body searches at airports to finding themselves under the microscope of suspicion for their everyday purchases and hobbies, Americans 10 years later have learned to adapt to the intrusions of tighter security in a smaller, scarier world.

No group, however, has felt the effects of 9/11 more than police, firefighters and other emergency workers.

The attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Flight 93 in Pennsylvania prompted major changes in the way emergency personnel communicate, train and respond. And the lessons from 9/11 are being applied in Weld County with a broad brush to other disaster scenarios that could be more likely to hit closer to home.

Over the past 10 years, local first responders have conducted training drills for terrorist attacks, mass shootings, nuclear accidents, forest fires and tornadoes.

“The reality is, if someone blows up a building in Weld County, you're going to have some of the same response aspects to an explosion that you would to an aircraft going down or a gas line blowing up or a tornado coming through,” said Roy Rudisill, director of emergency management for Weld County. “You're going to have destruction, fatalities and injuries, and your response to incidents will be similar.

“The likelihood of a natural event vs. a terrorist event is higher, but we still need to focus on an all-inclusive response.”

Getting prepared

In the wake of 9/11, first responders have almost morphed into uber-disaster response agencies, with the help of state and federal funding.

Money began flooding into training, buying equipment and upgrading management response systems to coordinate all agencies in a disaster. The Department of Homeland Security was created, and local police, fire, paramedics and local governments were receiving grants to prepare for and eventually to stave off the next big attack through better communication.

Federal funding came with mandates for training with its new national incident management system, or NIMS.

“That's when events escalated to a higher level, statewide and federal resources come in and the command structure would already be in place,” said Dale Lyman, division chief with Greeley Fire Department and formerly the city's emergency response manager. “And they tied strings to it, so if you didn't train your people and adopt this system, there would be no federal funding. That was the hammer.”

That meant buying into higher-level training and purchasing equipment that was almost four times the cost of normal equipment, such as $2,500 hand-held radios that used to cost agencies $600-$700 each.

“What it did was clearly define where you manage an incident at the local level and establish a structure so everyone is using the same management system,” Lyman said. “So everything can plug in and build from there.”

That means common radio frequencies, procedures and command structures that any agency could fit right into upon responding to an emergency, he said.

“I can take a group of firefighters from Greeley to an incident in Washington, D.C., and they can be assigned a specific role and they will know how they fit, what their responsibilities will be and who they're answering to. Everyone is speaking the same language.”

Part of that structure was identified after 9/11 when firefighters who were near Manhattan picked up their airpacks and dispatched themselves to fight the fires, Lyman said.

“They jumped on their trucks and drove to New York, which was in their hearts the right thing to do, but on the other hand, they had issues with managing those resources and accounting for those people,” Lyman said.

Being disciplined enough to stay put until dispatched was one of the lessons of 9/11.

Training upgrades

For years, first responders took a more level approach to responding to some disasters.

At the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, for example, police felt they couldn't just storm the school, start shooting and taking names.

Today, police are training for and responding much differently to such serious threats.

“Law enforcement is better prepared for how they'll respond to an active threat, such as the guy shooting up McDonald's,” Greeley Police Chief Jerry Garner said. “In the past, it may have been the practice to isolate and wait for the SWAT team. Now, our response is to get the team together and neutralize the threat. We don't wait. We go in and kill the bad guy.”

Other changes include training extensively to have one central command structure that coordinates multi-agency responses, to any emergency, whether it be a hazardous materials spill or a plane crash.

While the possibility of a massive terrorism attack in Greeley may seem low, disaster responses are just that if a building blows, if a plane crashes into the nuclear power plant or a tornado rips out the Xcel Energy plant in Platteville — all scenarios first responders have trained for in recent years.

Most recently, Weld's first responders cooperated on an exercise in which a mock tornado hit the Xcel Energy plant in Platteville. Scenarios throughout northern Colorado have included everything from the bird-flu pandemic to a tornado spawning a plane crash into the St. Vrain Nuclear Power Plant near Platteville.

The disaster drills are requirements now.

“We did some prior to 9/11, but not at the level we're doing them now,” Lyman said. “Are they far-fetched? Yes and no. A lot of times the incident might be, but it really does get people using the radios and talking to each other. It also gives people training in building that management structure to handle the incident and utilize the resources you have.

“That's the purpose. It's not that a crop duster is going to crash into a nuclear missile silo, it's just to get people moving and utilizing the EMS structure.”

costs of extra security

Grants to local agencies grew immensely as a result of the training mandates, and government costs on emergency management skyrocketed. For example, in 2001, the city of Greeley had no one dedicated to emergency management, and the city spent only $26,000 that year on emergency preparedness, City Finance Director Tim Nash said.

Today, that figure is $110,800 to fund a one-man planning office. Emergency Manager Stephen Blois manages two emergency preparedness exercises per year and coordinates training for all first responders and city leaders within Greeley government.

In Weld County, emergency preparedness in 2001 cost $45,103; today, that cost is up to $106,737, reports Don Warden, director of budget and management for the county.

That doesn't include the extra spending on the county's health department to create and manage a public health preparedness program that could respond to pandemics, for example. The county upgraded its lab significantly after 9/11. There was no funding prior, but after grant funding this year, the county spent $139,970 on the program, Warden said. Grants came in at almost $250,000 this year alone.

There hasn't been a significant attack on American soil since Sept. 11, 2001, thanks in part to law enforcement dismantling some terrorist cells and intercepting plots.

Now, money is starting to dry up, and agencies must dot more I's and cross more T's to get grants.

“The reality is, after 10 years, people start doing budgets and” realize the money is tougher to find, Lyman said. After the recent hurricane on the East Coast, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reports it's out of money, facing a budget shortfall of $5 billion.

“After 10 years, it's a little bit forgotten, at the federal level also, so it's waning a bit,” Lyman said.

Rudisill agreed, saying memories for any disaster have a way of short-circuiting, not only financially, but in people's personal lives.

“When we have natural events, such as flooding, tornadoes, we forget quickly how bad they were,” Rudisill said. “When you have severe thunderstorms and lightning and you don't have it for a long time and you see these guys outside in a storm with umbrellas and you're like, 'Did you forget last year?' “

Modern-day paranoia

Police can't afford to grow lax, however, and in this post-9/11 world, they must remain vigilant. Now, they pay more attention to the guy buying exorbitant amounts of fertilizer (like Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma bombing in 1995).

They pay more attention, period.

“We have to look at some things differently than we had looked at them on Sept. 10,” Garner said. “Like the guy out there taking pictures of trains because he's a railroad fan. Â… We know one of the things al-Qaida has looked at is wrecking passenger trains. We know this guy is probably a rail fan, but we have to be more suspicious about him now.”

Firefighters are even making sure they lock the doors and close the bays when they get called out on a fire — something that wasn't top of mind 25 years ago.

“After 9/11, there were reports of fire trucks being stolen, or ambulances being stolen,” Lyman said, describing an almost Hollywood-esque scenario. “The fear was that a terrorist would get a hold of a fire truck and be able to load it with explosives and drive it, put on the firefighter gear and drive into a secure facility and do bad things.”

Such suspicion may seem far-fetched, but there are those out there who believed there were early warning signs of the Sept. 11 attacks and nothing was done.

“I guess the biggest thing is the awareness level of suspicious activity,” Lyman said. “When we go on a fire, before it was just a fire. Now, if it's a fire at a water treatment plant, is someone trying to create havoc, or striking at the infrastructure?”

Local agencies have taken extra precautions, such as limiting access to the city's water and sewer plants, or installing better firewalls into computer systems.

“We did a vulnerability assessment for the water department and added some procedures for sabotage,” said Jon Monson, Greeley's water and sewer director. “Homegrown terrorism is certainly a possibility we need to guard against.”

People are willing to go a bit more under the microscope for their personal safety, Garner said, but even that has limits.

“We're probably doing the amount the American public will tolerate,” Garner said. “We threw a fit over what TSA does, so there's a limit in a democracy in how much you want cops to do. We're going about as far as people want us to go. You have to be vigilant without appearing to be a police state.”

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