I stare incredulously at the images on the television screen on this most terrible day, April 19, 1995. Like millions of Americans, I am shaken beyond belief over the handiwork of terrorists in Oklahoma City. We all know, as we watch and listen, the simple math: 550 workers occupying the building, 36 known dead, only 200 accounted for (at press time)–the mournful bell would be sure to toll many times on this day and on days to follow. And, we are told the greatest outrage of all: A day-care center is on the second floor. Twelve children are known to be dead…. A mother cries for her lost children in front of the camera…. Firefighters working with a baby implore, “Breathe, breathe, breathe….” A voice on CNN says, “If you are a little girl or boy and your mommy or daddy hasn`t come home yet, call this number. There are people who want to help you. I`ll say it very slowly for you….”

I sit, empty inside, wondering what has become of our nation, our world, our human race.

If we ever doubted America`s vulnerability to terrorist attacks, if any of us harbored the misconception that terrorists strike only high-profile “strategic” buildings in east- or west-coast urban centers, these doubts and misconceptions have been quickly dispelled by the bombing of the Murrah Federal building in a midwest city, whose inhabitants, according to Oklahoma State Senator Paul Muegge, “have a very casual existence….We really don`t concern ourselves with security, even at the state capitol.”

The terrorists` choice of target and the numerous concurrent bomb threats received across the United States on this day send the chilling message: “We will strike at you anywhere, anytime. No place is safe or beyond our reach”–a realization that some say has imposed on Americans a “loss of innocence.”

Analysts of worldwide terrorism predict an increase in this type of activity within our borders. Daniel Pipes, editor of Middle East Quarterly, has stated in a national paper, “People need to understand that this is just the beginning….The fundamentalists are on the upsurge….They are absolutely obsessed with us.” Terrorism expert Stephen Sloan cautions, “No geographic area is zoned against terrorism. The psychological shockwaves are going to be very significant. We`re going to have to accept what may be a new reality.”

The FBI reports that between 1989 and 1993, there were 32 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Fully 75 percent of those incidents were bombings. Twenty-three terrorist attacks were prevented, and 20 other incidents that occurred during that period were suspected terrorist attacks.

The emergency response to the Oklahoma City bombing was immediate. The local fire department, police department, and medical personnel response is to be commended. National FEMA task force rescue teams were quickly activated and operating within a few hours of the blast.

Fire departments across the nation must respond to this most tragic wake-up call. The “it-can`t-happen-here” mentality has no place in the international political reality or in fire departments` vocabulary. Fire departments must take proactive steps to increase their rescue response capabilities, establish and train in response procedures to terrorist incidents, and develop interagency partnerships that improve response. These efforts must be supported by local, state, and federal government agencies.

The value of the FEMA USAR task force program has proven and will continue to prove its value time and again. We call on the federal government to expand its efforts in this area. At the same time, we must remember the reflex time involved in bringing these highly skilled FEMA search and rescue resources to the scene. The first response to any disaster will always be a local one. We, therefore, must be prepared at every level, at every moment. There no longer can be any doubt about the need for such preparedness.

While we deal with the psychological and emotional trauma and mourn for our dead in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, let us be committed to action. As fire department leaders–from every corner of the country–resolve that your response capabilities will be up to the terrible challenges that may be ahead.

God be with the innocent men, women, and children who perished in this senseless slaughter and give strength to their families in their pain. We are mourning with you.

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