Connecting state and local government leaders
One of the biggest lessons to come out of the terrorist attacks was the importance of regional cooperation and training in emergency preparedness, experts said.
When terrorists crashed a plane into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, it wasn’t a branch of the military that oversaw the massive emergency response operation—the lead agency was the 266-person Arlington County Fire Department in Virginia.
The emergency response at the Pentagon that day was largely considered a success, by the 9/11 Commission, due in part to the high level of regional cooperation among local, state and federal agencies that enabled first responders to quickly stand up an incident command system.
Twenty years later, emergency preparedness experts say the incorporation of regional training and communications into emergency planning is one of the most important takeaways for local governments from the deadly terrorist attacks.
“Regional thinking and planning and concern for regional impacts is now in the DNA of local government bodies and our employees,” said David Snyder, the chairman of the National Capital Region Emergency Preparedness Council and a Falls Church, Virginia city councilmember. “It’s no longer enough to think about your single jurisdiction.”
That’s meant more regular meetings and working groups between local agencies, from police and fire departments to transportation agencies, Snyder said.
In December 2019, local governments in the Washington, D.C. region held a tabletop exercise based around pandemic response to help define roles and responsibilities, Snyder said. After the simulation, a public health officers committee was established. The timing was helpful, given that less than four months later, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. acted in unison to announce stay-at-home orders in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Whether it was terrorist attacks, domestic attacks, climate change, the pandemic… almost everything today extends beyond jurisdictional lines,” Snyder said.
Out of the Sept. 11 attacks came two significant developments for local first responders: the National Incident Management System, a framework for responding to significant emergency incidents, such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters and industrial accidents; and FirstNet, a nationwide public safety broadband network.
Agencies that have switched to FirstNet for emergency communications said the system has vastly improved the range and functionality of their communications capabilities.
“Previously, if you were on the phone, you couldn't go to certain parts of the county because it would drop the call,” Betsy Fitzgerald, a county commissioner for Washington County, Maine, told FirstNet. “Now, we can travel from point A to point B and the FirstNet phone manages to maintain its connectivity.”
The NIMS framework provides a way for local governments to organize command structure and response regardless of who they are working with, said Judson Freed, president of the International Association of Emergency Managers and director of emergency management and homeland security for Ramsey County, Minnesota.
Having a single command and communications system enables multiple jurisdictions to scale up and easily work alongside each other during an emergency, he said.
“We’ve increased the capacity to respond to these things. Not by increasing the fire department to 10 times their size, but by coming up with agreements so that we can provide mutual aid,” Freed said.
Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.