The surreal nature of Sept. 11, 2001, for those living and working in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area at the time still lingers for many.
Mike Grierson recalled working with Montgomery County Fire and Rescue in Rockville when he learned about the attacks in New York City and nearby in northern Virginia at the Pentagon.
“As things unfolded we were all trying to follow the news agencies,” said Grierson, who today is Calvert County’s emergency management division chief. “Cell phones weren’t working. We were all getting calls from family. It was difficult to communicate that day. We had folks who kept trying to report in.”
The discovery that a chain of terrorist attacks could expose a “communication shortfall” was a sobering development born out of the tragedy.
Harry Knight, a retired Navy veteran, was a volunteer with the Nanjemoy Volunteer Fire Department 20 years ago. His day job was at the U.S. Treasury, from where one could look across the Potomac River and see the Pentagon.
“I felt the rumbling,” Knight recalled, as American Airlines Flight 77 that had been bound for Los Angeles, crashed into the Pentagon after being hijacked by terrorists, killing all aboard and 125 people in the building.
Treasury department employees were told to leave their offices, get out of the city and go home.
“I could still see the smoke rising when I was driving on Indian Head Highway,” Knight told Southern Maryland News.
Grierson said the devastation wrought by the terrorist attack drew responses from fire departments — paid and volunteer — from all over the state of Maryland.
On the federal level, the Department of Homeland Security was born and began to evolve, with its initial creation coming 11 day after the attacks. The department was officially established the following year with 22 different, existing federal agencies moved under its umbrella.
One of the entities that became the purview of Homeland Security is the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency. It’s through FEMA that local fire and rescue squads connect to the security effort, not so much through oversight, but through grant funding.
According to the Homeland Security website, FEMA offers grants to first responders for emergency preparedness, specialized training and emergency medical services.
As for closing the gap in communication, Grierson said, “We kind of think regional.”
Earlier this year, Calvert County government activated a new public safety communications system, a project that was several years in the making and came at a cost of $21.4 million. The state-of-the-art system provides first responders and public safety personnel with more reliable, in-building coverage and increases the number of available communications channels to 10.
“The new system has so many more capabilities,” said Grierson.
“Communication was a big deal,” said Knight, adding that at the national level, responder communication underwent some big changes, too.
“There was a huge learning curve after 9/11,” said Knight.
Stephen Walker, head of emergency services in St. Mary’s County, said from the information he has gathered from longtime county government employees — Walker was working in law enforcement in the Washington suburbs in 2001 — the departments and agencies connected to the St. Mary’s 911 center on Sept. 11, 2001, “were concerned about the area’s specific infrastructure.”
That infrastructure included Naval Air Station Patuxent River, which was a decade into its expansion.
Charles County has a U.S. Navy facility in Indian Head. Knight, who now volunteers with the Newburg Volunteer Fire Department, said his new company doesn’t have any regular interactions with the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Indian Head, but they do coordinate response with a similar facility across the Potomac in Dahlgren, Va.
Grierson said that, like St. Mary’s County, Calvert emergency officials also stay in the loop with Pax River officials on base activities such as training exercises and any occurrences that create far-traveling noise.
“They make it a point to reach out,” said Greirson.
The ties the state-of-the-art communications systems have solidified among responders in the region’s three counties is further expanded by the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, which has a joint operations center in Reisterstown.
“We interact with them a lot,” said Grierson, adding that it is at a level of communication “that wasn’t there before 9/11.”
Knight said the bolstered communication isn’t just through high technology.
“There’s a lot more awareness,” he said. “We are encouraged not to take anything for granted, especially during a time like now when there’s a lot of extra awareness and uncertainty. There is more basic security and more heightened alert cautions.”
Knight indicated the modern day axiom of “see something, say something” was likely spawned by some of the red flags that were missed prior to the 9/11 attacks.
Training is also more intense, said Knight.
“Hazardous materials, chemical and biological warfare response training, they’re kind of standard,” he said.
While 9/11 could be considered America’s worst nightmare, heightening the level of consciousness could prove to be a positive when it comes to prepping for other disasters like hurricanes.
Grierson said emergency response training at local energy facilities like Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Lusby — long considered potential targets of the nefarious before 9/11 — now include “simulated terrorist events. Their thought process has changed what they train for.”