9/11: The day everything changed

Emergency management, law enforcement agencies intensify their resolve to stop future attacks

By Don Coble don@opcfla.com
Posted 9/8/21

CLAY COUNTY – America changed on Sept. 11, 2001.

Not only was the world shaken when 19 Islamic terrorists hijacked and flew four jet airliners into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a field …

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9/11: The day everything changed

Emergency management, law enforcement agencies intensify their resolve to stop future attacks

Posted

CLAY COUNTY – America changed on Sept. 11, 2001.

Not only was the world shaken when 19 Islamic terrorists hijacked and flew four jet airliners into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, but it also prompted a shakeup on how the United States will defend itself in the future. In a matter of 77 minutes, the United States was exposed to its many shortcomings and challenged to find ways to make sure it never happens again.

There were 2,977 killed that day and more than 25,000 injuries. Many of the bodies were never recovered, but the country vowed to never forget any of those who died that day.

Airports have several layers of

additional security, starting with random law enforcement patrols, metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs and luggage x-rays. Cockpit doors have been reinforced to eliminate breaches. And a final level of defense is passengers who never will allow a plane to be commandeered and turned into a weapon again.

There are new levels of government oversight, particularly phone and internet surveillance.

But more importantly, there is a greater network of intelligence and cooperation between the groups that have been tasked with keeping us safe, especially in Clay County.

“The one thing you’ve seen change is there is more collaboration between agencies,” said Clay County Director of Emergency Management John Ward.

Ward was working with Clay County Fire Rescue at Camp Blanding the morning of the attacks. He took charge of emergency management in 2008. He has the daunting responsibility to warn, assist and coordinate relief from natural disasters like hurricanes, floods and tornadoes. He also was a county official who worked to educate residents and prevent the COVID-19 pandemic. And he sorts through volumes of information concerning possible threats, including school shootings and organized threats.

“Back then, EM [emergency management] was really transitioning from what used to be called Civil Defense,” he said. “In Northeast Florida, we have what’s called the Regional Domestic Security Task Force, we got FDLE, county law enforcement senior officials, fire and rescue, health departments, those types of agencies who are not only communicating that intelligence to make the community aware.”

One of the failures ahead of the attacks was the lack of information sharing between the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency and other intelligence communities.

Another failure during the frantic rescues following the attacks at the World Trade Center was the inability of fire and law enforcement departments to talk to each other because each department had exclusive, non-interoperable radio frequencies.

Firemen couldn’t warn police; police couldn’t talk with EMTs and paramedics; rescue squads were in the dark. Of the 2,977 who died that day, 411 were first responders in New York – 343 firefighters, 23 police officers, 37 Port Authority officers and eight medical workers.

That’s all changed, Ward said.

“You’ve seen the collaboration. You’ve seen those mandates come down from the federal level of organizational structure for the incident command system,” he said. “There’s got to be a permanent structure. What we’re doing now, there’s a common structure whether we go from Louisiana to Florida or Florida goes to New York, there’s that common organizational structure, that common language, that we use amongst our different agencies.”

Emergency management offices often are briefed about threats. Most are determined to be nothing more than blather, but every one of them is taken seriously.

Ward said there’s usually some chatter during the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. This year is no different, although he said there’s nothing that appears to be organized or imminent. But he won’t drop his guard.

Ward currently is deployed in Southern Louisiana as part of the recovery following Hurricane Ida.

“I will say we are fortunate in Clay County. I took over Emergency Management in [2008]. We are blessed with the partnerships that we have in Clay County. I go to other agencies and there’s huge disconnects. They don’t have that relationship, which really poses a challenge because, in responses like this [Hurricane Ida], intelligence sharing between law enforcement agencies and emergency management is critical so we can prepare for those prospective issues.”

The nation increased its attention to personal preparation since that morning. It started with threat-level information, but it evolved into the Department of Homeland Security’s Ready.gov program to help residents prepare for all types of disasters, not just terrorism. The terrorism message was stressed at first, and most people still can recognize the national public service catchphrase “see something, say something,” but it now includes all forms of threats.

The Trade Center towers were replaced by the 94-floor One World Trade Center (formerly Freedom Tower). It is the tallest building in the United States and it took eight years to build. The development includes the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.

It also serves as a reminder of the challenges the United States faces every day – and the always-evolving commitment to stop threats before they become another attack.

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