Words cannot describe the loss we all felt and suffered on September 11, 2001. It set into motion an absolutely horrible chain of events that left us in a state of shock and sadness. And with hearts hurting, we tried to figure out what happened, how it happened, and why it happened. We worked hard to hold everything together and to hold on to our family, our fire service family. Many in the fire service struggled as we attempted to cope with alternating feelings of sadness and anger. And, when you did start to get a handle on the whole sadness thing, you’d think about friends who are no longer with us and get ticked off all over again.
THE PUBLIC OUTCRY AND SUPPORT
The public has always held the fire service in very high regard. When kids are asked about heroes or role models, you are always assured that firefighters will be mentioned. The public trusts us, when we’re handling an emergency for them and when we are not. They hire firefighters for odd jobs and for many other services, and when asked by a friend how was so and so at building your addition, they reply, “Great, you know he’s a firefighter!” So, it goes without saying that our loss on 9/11 was felt well beyond our brothers and sisters in the fire service; it was felt profoundly by the public as well. And the support from the public was phenomenal. They consoled us, fed us, and donated money to assist the families of those we had lost. Churches, schools, civic organizations, whole communities, were there for us. All of us!
A WAKE-UP CALL
Never in our wildest dreams or nightmares did we ever imagine such an event that would result in such a great loss. That kind of thing just didn’t happen in America-I mean, attacking us like they did back at Pearl Harbor. The truth is, a few saw it coming, many never believed it could happen here, and now everyone knows it did and could happen again. It was a wake-up call for us all. Retired General H. Norman Schwartzkopf said it best, “For decades we’ve had those two big oceans to protect us, but today technology has taken that away from us. We’re as vulnerable as ever.” He also added that we got so comfortable that some of our past administrations cut funding to the Armed Forces and hurt the very programs that help us defend our country. Boy, does that sound familiar to us in the fire service.
Before 9/11, many of us tried to push for programs and classes for our personnel that taught and informed them about anthrax, smallpox, and various weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Many of those trying to do this were laughed at or told there wasn’t any need. Now, finally, we at least have the classes and training, for the most part, on how to handle these types of emergencies. What is sort of amazing is that after the attacks on September 11, you couldn’t swing a dead cat around the room without hitting an expert in terrorism or WMD. My question is, where were they before 9/11? Now don’t get me wrong; there are many who are very talented, knowledgeable, and experienced in this area, and they are doing a great job getting us to where we need to be, but many others came out of the shadows when they heard the money train coming.
THE FUNDING IS HERE … WELL, SOME OF IT
There’s not a fire department anywhere in this country that has a limitless budget-at least we haven’t met any yet-one just overflowing with funding and looking for a way to spend it. The hard cold reality is that most of us are trying to rub two nickels together to make a quarter. We’re fighting off budget cuts while all along trying to get funding for areas that need it-usually those little insignificant things like protective clothing, SCBAs, radios, tools, training, and, oh yes, for the paid departments, that unbelievable, unreasonable request of actually wanting to pay your people a decent salary so that they can put food on the table.
For years, a variety of folks have tried to get us the funding we need to protect us. For a long time, volunteer firefighting organizations, the International Association of Fire Fighters, and the International Association of Fire Chiefs have fought to protect us. This time, though, they had the ammunition to go after some big stuff, and they did. But as hard as they worked and as hard as so many others tried, we did OK but not great. Many fire departments did and still fund programs that tax their budgets or cause other areas to be cut so they can fund the “new stuff.” A lot of the new grants and funds are there if you know where to look for them; but even then, you have to play or fight the political game of who needs it, who needs it more, and why. The bad news is, it’s not enough. The good news is, it’s more than we had before. And through it all, I often remind myself when I question the length of time it takes to get a grant approved and then spend the money that, instead of waiting months to get it, we’ve actually been waiting decades. Think about it. I often ask myself, “Think back before 9/11; how long did it take back then? Enough said! So a couple of months more don’t bother me.
GOOD POLITICIAN/BAD POLITICIAN
When talking about the bad and the good that can come out of a crisis, you can’t help but get to this one (we discussed it in an earlier issue): that before 9/11, so many political types fought us on funding and in our battle to add more personnel. They fought us hard. Then 9/11 hit and BAM, they were gone. Well, sort of. Many of them lined up to take photos with us and put their arms around us and promised they would do whatever they could to get us the funds we need to be better prepared. Now on the one side, many did come through for us, and we are doing much better. The rest, though, sort of slipped back to where they were before 9/11, but they’ll be back. When there’s an election or the next time we get hit, they will line up next to us again for another photo opportunity; we’ll hear from them. Then, as time slips by, they’ll demand to know why we weren’t prepared. They’ll start pointing fingers (always away from themselves), and we’ll remind them about the whole funding thing. They will say, “It’s coming,” and we’ll be right back in it again, just going around in circles.
JUST LIKE THE STOP SIGN
Just as it seems that we never put the Stop sign up at that dangerous intersection until a kid gets hit, we never seem to get the funding or make the changes until one of our own gets hit. Whether it’s on the fireground or wherever, often, and at times way too often, we are reactive instead of proactive when it comes to our own needs. This time we have a bigger platform to yell from, and we shouldn’t stop screaming for the things we need to protect our people and ultimately the public until we get them. Every time I think about the friends I lost on 9/11, as well as before and after, I try to look for ways not to let their deaths be in vain.
We have talked many times about how those who have left us will always be with us, helping us, teaching us, and helping us to go home each day-that is, if we’ll let them! To me, their deaths will never have been in vain because they gave us the ability to protect our people better and, to be honest, a list of good things so long that we can’t describe it all in this article. We did lose them, and it hurts, but they are helping us more than ever right now-again, if we’re willing to let them help.
Their loss has helped us to realize that we have to do the following: make a difference while we can, build our own legacy, mentor, invoke change, take care of each other better, train better, fight for better equipment and staffing, remember who’s at home waiting, and that each and every day, hour, minute, and second is a gift that should not be wasted hurting each other or being in a bad mood.
The hugs feel better now than ever before. You hear firefighters calling each other “brother” and “sister” more. Keep it up, because it will be gone before you know it. After 9/11, Bill Manning wrote the editorial, “They Are Alive in You.” They are. Keep them there. Remember what they and every brother and sister who has gone before has done for us. We owe it to them and to ourselves as well. Never forgetting means never forgetting.
You know, with all the bad that happened on 9/11, it’s hard to see some of the good that came from it. Don’t let our brothers’ and sisters’ deaths be in vain. Remember the Stop sign. Make a difference. Seize the moment. We are a little bit better. ■
RICK LASKY, a 25-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department. Previously, he was chief of the Coeur d’Alene (ID) Fire Department and training officer for the Darien-Woodridge (IL) and Bedford Park (IL) Fire Departments. While in Illinois, he taught at the Illinois Fire Service Institute and Illinois Fire Chiefs’ Association and received the 1996 International Society of Fire Service Instructors “Innovator of the Year” award for his part in developing the “Saving Our Own” program. He is the lead instructor for the H.O.T. Firefighter Survival program at FDIC West and is co-lead instructor for the program at FDIC. He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and serves on the FDIC, FDIC West, and FDIC East Educational Advisory Boards.