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How the Worst Day for American Firefighters Led to Safety Changes

Today in History | September 11, 2018

The names of all 343 firefighters from the New York Fire lost in the September 11 are read out, followed by a prayer before the climb. (Photo by Shirley Kwok/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Seventeen years ago, on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, the career of firefighting underwent a dramatic and unexpected shift. When two hijacked domestic passenger planes struck the Twin Towers in New York City at nearly the same time as another struck the Pentagon Building in Washington D.C. and a fourth crashed before it reached its intended target, the nation under attack called on firefighters. 

Firefighting…An Old Profession

Since man harnessed fire, there has been a need for firefighters. In the United States, Benjamin Franklin is credited with starting the volunteer fire service even before the country officially came into existence. Shortly after that, Boston became the first city with a full-fledged fire department. When the terrorist attacks of September 11 occurred in 2001, New York City boasted the country’s largest fire department. In fact, the FDNY was the second largest fire department in the world, behind Tokyo’s. 

343…A Number Every Firefighter Now Knows

Three hundred and forty-three firefighters died in the line of duty on September 11, 2001. That is the largest single-day casualty count for the fire service ever. Most of the firefighters died after successfully evacuating citizens from the burning skyscrapers. When they rescued someone and got him or her to safety, the firefighters would rush back into the burning building to search for more survivors. When the Twin Towers collapsed, the South Tower at 9:59 a.m. and the North Tower at 10:28 a.m., there were still firefighters in the structures doing the job they were hired to do. 

A Terrible Day For Firefighters, But Also a Triumphant One

Lost in the tragedy of 343 fallen firefighters is the fact that these brave men and women, in the hours and minutes leading up to their deaths, orchestrated the largest and most successful evacuation in U.S. history. Thousands of lives were saved because the FDNY was able to locate and rescue people trapped by the flames in the Twin Towers and the surrounding buildings. It was an impressive accomplishment that goes down as one of the FDNY’s greatest feats and a true testament to the excellent training the firefighters received and the bravery of individuals. 

(New York Daily News)

Firefighting Changed After the 9/11 Attacks

One of the biggest changes felt throughout the fire service was in attitudes, both of the general public and of the firefighters themselves. Sure, firefighters have always been viewed as heroes and positive role models, but that greatly increased after the nation witnessed the bravery and sacrifice of firefighters. In the year following the 9/11 attacks, there was a huge spike in people joining volunteer fire departments across the country...and there are more volunteer fire departments than there are paid departments in the United States. In fact, approximately 3 out of every 4 firefighters is a volunteer, doing his or her dangerous job for no pay. Additionally, attitudes within the fire service changed. Firefighters became more keenly aware of the dangers of their job and that things could go very wrong, very quickly. The firefighter bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood that have always been there, strengthened after the terrorist attacks. 

Fundamental Changes Have Also Occurred

With the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks came the awareness that firefighting, as an industry, need to prepare for a new scenario, mass casualty events due to weapons of mass destruction. Training programs and planning sessions were implemented nationwide to prepare firefighters to fight a global terrorist threat in their own backyards. Training on hazardous materials, detonations, snipers, and chemical agents have all been included in the traditional house fire training. 

Fire Departments had to Adapt Their Communication

Another change that took place within the fire service was in the way emergency responders communicated with one another. In the past, local or regional fire departments and emergency services had their own codes for various situations and they used these codes when communicating with each other. But, they quickly learned, in a mass casualty event like the terrorist attacks of September 11th, other departments would be called in to assist. With each department using a different set of codes, it would be like speaking a totally different language and expecting everyone to understand it. Emergency dispatching switched to a “plain talk” system, eliminating regional codes in favor of universally understood words and terms. 

Cooperation and Coordination Became Buzz Words in the Fire Service

Additional training programs and training grants all pushed the concepts of departments working in conjunction with each other in large-scale events. Cross-cooperation, planning, and communication between all emergency services at local, regional, state, and national levels were pushed. The end result, hopefully, would be fire departments and emergency workers who are prepared to spring into action if there was another large threat situation. 

Firefighters are Called to Serve Their Community

The 9/11 attacks have proven to us that firefighting is a dangerous profession. Yet there are brave men and women who step up every day to put themselves in danger to help their neighbors and their communities. The majority of them…about 77%...do it for the pride of giving back, not for a paycheck. Today, on the 17th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, the nation should reflect on the role of the fire service to honor the 343 brave firefighters who died in the line of duty at Ground Zero and today’s firefighters who know that, in a moment’s notice, they could be the next ones called to help. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.