It is hard to believe that 20 years have passed since four passenger airliners, commandeered by terrorists, plunged into each tower of the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pa.
Ever since the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the law enforcement and emergency preparedness services were gearing up in expectation that the perpetrators felt that mission was a failure and another attempt had to be more devastating. To that end, the federal government led the efforts of state, county and local governments to better train and equip first responders. It is not a matter of if they will try again, it is a matter of when they will try again.
Training modalities were enhanced under the direction of the New Jersey State Police (NJSP) following the National Incident Management System. All first responders and public officials were required to complete course work in the Incident Command System (ICS). Specialized courses were conducted at awareness and operations level for Hazardous Materials Response (HazMat) and Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). It was the responsibility of the Sussex County Department of Health, Division of Emergency Management and 9-1-1 Coordination, to provide instructor courses and oversee countywide ICS, HazMat and WMD training. Much of this was done in cooperation with Sussex County Community College (SCCC) and the SC Fire Academy, later the SC Fire and Police Training Academy.
The increased responsibilities directed by the NJSP Emergency Management Section (EMS) coupled with cramped facilities, caused the SC Division of Emergency Management and 9-1-1 Coordination to move twice from 1998 to 2000, winding up on the SCCC campus in mid-2001. Before the fateful date, the only communications that could be erected was the Radio Amateur Communications Emergency Services (RACES-ham radio) system and telephones. The new location didn’t even have cable for television.
Such was the equipment status available to a full-time director, a shared administrative clerk and a cadre of well-trained and enthusiastic volunteers.
9/11/2001 had been designated 9-1-1 Telecommunicator’s Recognition Day by the New Jersey Office of Emergency Telecommunications Services (OETS). 9-1-1 telecommunicators (dispatchers) from throughout New Jersey including two from Sussex County were to be recognized for exceptional service at a ceremony in Trenton that morning.
The SC Director of OEM and 9-1-1 Telecommunications was headed to Trenton in his personal vehicle to participate in the ceremony. He was west on #202 from Somerville and listening to 101.5 when a man called in to say an airplane had just struck the north tower of the World Trade Center. He was being very graphic and the radio personality sounded more skeptical as a few minutes passed. When the caller referred to a second plane crashing into the south tower, the radio personality abruptly hung up on the caller.
After a minute or two, the caller came back on with the radio personality apologizing for disbelieving him. At this point the SC Director made a U-turn and headed back to his office. Passing by Somerville he could see smoke rising on the horizon from NYC.
He was able to hail a marked police car and was afforded an escort to Chester. He called ahead and advised his assistant to get RACES volunteers in and accept all other available volunteer staff. He also directed her to have Service Electric Cable to extend cable TV lines the quarter mile from the terminus to the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), such as it was. (He would later be admonished for not requesting a purchase order despite SECTV donating the hook up.) In less than half an hour, the line was being strung and the staff could visualize the replay of the towers falling.
The colonel of the NJSP, director of OEM, transmitted an order that all requests for mutual aid to NYC were to be channeled through county EOCs. The Port Authority had almost instantly requested a response from all area police departments. Vernon PD received the request and sent two cars to staging in Jersey City. Other police departments anxiously complied with the staging request. The SC fire coordinator coordinated fire service staging through the NJ Division of Fire Safety (DFS).
County OEMs coordinated emergency medical and rescue services response after first being assured that responders would be properly geared up for hazardous duties. A Newton police lieutenant volunteered to direct the mustering of twenty basic life support ambulances at Sparta PD. Shortcomings in personal protective equipment were corrected and the task force headed for Jersey City then redirected to the Meadowlands. A couple of SC EMS units wound up on duty on the Hudson River Waterfront in Jersey City to Liberty State Park where they accepted and treated walking wounded brought there by a Dunkirk-like floatilla. Before the end of the day, the request for EMS was changed to a request for any available body bags.
Once the magnitude of the event was better understood, the SC OEM geared up for 24-hour coverage. A local travel trailer dealer brought a unit to the campus for use as resting facilities for volunteer and paid staff. Little did the director believe he would be using the unit for weeks.
The fire coordinator, through the DFS, rotated local volunteer fire resources into NYC for backfill of fire stations and eventually for honor processions at the funerals of fallen firefighters. That effort would continue for months. Four or five volunteer basic EMT units were scheduled by SC OEM and sent on alternate days for several months.
In reflecting on 9/11/2001, without reliving that event or anything near to it, the camaraderie of the entire community as experienced that day should bless us everyday. We must remember those who were lost. We must continue to condemn those who performed such a dastardly crime. Osama Bin Laden was just a name in the WMD texts studied by all Sussex County first responders prior to 9/11. His followers will never be satisfied. “It is not a matter of if it will happen again, it is a matter of when.”
Editor’s note: Eskil S. Danielson is a Byram, N.J., resident.