On Thursday the 9-11 Commission turned in its final report to the president, Congress and the American people, concluding its extensive analysis of what led to the Sept. 11 attacks, what happened on that tragic day and what is needed to prevent and prepare for future attacks.
Although the bulk of the report focused on intelligence failures, portions of the report also deal with vulnerabilities in emergency response and preparedness. While the commission praised individual firefighters, EMS providers, police and civilians who responded on Sept. 11, saying their actions “saved lives and inspired a nation,” their report said all those in government service share a responsibility for not adequately preparing for terrorism before Sept. 11.
“Much of our response on the day of 9/11 was improvised and ineffective, even as extraordinary individual acts of heroism saved countless lives,” the commission concluded.
As part of a “global strategy,” the commissioners made several recommendations specifically aimed at improving emergency response preparedness:
- “Base federal funding for emergency preparedness solely on risks and vulnerabilities, putting New York City and Washington, D.C., at the top of the current list. Such assistance should not remain a program for general revenue sharing or pork-barrel spending.”
- "Make homeland security funding contingent on the adoption of an incident command system to strengthen teamwork in a crisis, including a regional approach. Allocate more radio spectrum and improve connectivity for public safety communications, and encourage widespread adoption of newly developed standards for private-sector emergency preparedness—since the private sector controls 85% of the nation’s critical infrastructure.”
Theis assessing the document and plans to make a statement soon, according to Alan Caldwell, the IAFC’s government affairs staff member.
“One thing we already know is that intelligence failures will happen again,” said Caldwell. “We know we will be attacked again, and when that attack happens our fire department personnel will be the first on the scene and will be called to mitigate the situation.”
Chapter 9 of the report, titled “Heroism and Horror,” contains the commission’s detailed anaylsis of preparedness and emergency response on Sept. 11. Much of their conclusions have been shared before as the commission’s investigation unfolded. Acknowledging New York’s fire department, police department, port authority and WTC employees and occupants “did their best to cope with the effects of an unimaginable catastrophe – unfolding furiously over 102 minutes” and that their efforts saved thousands who were successfully evacuated before the Twin Towers’ collapse, the commission detailed problems in command and control, radio communications and evacuations procedures that probably added to the casualties.
“For a unified incident management to succeed, each participant must have command and control of its own units and adequate internal communications. This was not always the case at the WTC on 9/11,” the report states. It also cites a lack of interagency coordination and communications that hindered the response effort. The report also describes efforts that the city has made to meet these challenges.
On the other hand, incident management of the Pentagon response, which brought together a mix of local, state and federal jurisdictions, is described in the report as “generally effective.”
“While no emergency response is flawless, the response to the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon was mainly a success for three reasons: first, the strong professional relationships and trust established among emergency responders; second, the adoption of the Incident Command System; and third, the pursuit of a regional approach to response. Many fire and police agencies that responded had extensive prior experience working together on regional events and training exercises.”
Yet the Pentagon response and the New York response both encountered some of the same difficulties, especially self-dispatching first responders proceeding on their own initiative to the incident site without checking in with incident command and massive problems with communications systems. The 9-11 Commission report echoed Arlington County’s after-action report on the Pentagon’s response: ““Almost all aspects of communications continue to be problematic, from initial notification to tactical operations. Cellular telephones were of little value. . . . Radio channels were initially oversaturated. . . . Pagers seemed to be the most reliable means of notification when available and used, but most firefighters are not issued pagers.”
The 9-11 report said, “It is a fair inference, given the differing situations in New York City and Northern Virginia, that the problems in command, control, and communications that occurred at both sites will likely recur in any emergency of similar scale. The task looking forward is to enable first responders to respond in a coordinated manner with the greatest possible awareness of the situation.”
Although the nation’s preparedness for terrorist attacks have made significant strides, the 9-11 Commission found that three years since the 9-11 attacks, the nation is still unprepared to deal with the continuing threat of terrorism.
“We expect further attacks," said Thomas H. Kean, chair of the 9-11 Commission. "Against such an enemy, there can be no complacency. This is the challenge of our generation.”
The entire 9-11 report is available in Adobe Acrobat format on the 9-11 Commission’s Web site at www.9-11commission.gov and is available in print in bookstores across the nation.