Remembering 9/11/01: ‘More than just a history lesson’
Roaring Fork Valley first responders reflect on 9/11’s impact to emergency response
Twenty years ago and 2,000 miles away, the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers fell and more than 2,700 people perished at what became known as Ground Zero. Among them were more than 400 first responders.
“It was surreal,” Glenwood Springs fire chief Gary Tillotson said. “It took several days for the reality to set in.”
Tillotson said he became a firefighter in the 1970s, motivated by the adrenaline of rushing into burning buildings and the satisfaction that came with helping others.
But for a short time after Sept. 11, 2001, that changed. He felt an unfamiliar fear.
“Initially, it made me take a step back,” Tillotson, 67, recalled. “I knew the job could be dangerous, but this was something different.”
For Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District (CRFPD) Fire Chief Rob Goodwin, 61, he immediately felt the need to help — in any capacity possible.
Goodwin and a few other members from the protection district packed a truck and prepared to answer a national call for additional support at Ground Zero, but the call was cancelled before they arrived in New York.
Then, his fellow firefighters took a boot to City Market, asking shoppers for donations to help the 9/11 victims. They received $30,000.
Goodwin and CRFPD firefighter Will Handville hopped on a plane, flew to New York and started looking for ways to help.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I didn’t do much,” Goodwin said, looking down at his hands as tears welled in his eyes.
Families filled the New York fire stations as they waited to hear about the fates of their loved ones, photos of missing people coated the exteriors of skyscrapers surrounding Ground Zero, and the pile of rubble seemed insurmountable, he remembered.
“There was so much devastation,” Goodwin said. “It was my first time in New York, and everywhere, everyone was so quiet.”
After a week, the duo visited the New York Fire Department headquarters in Brooklyn, and gave New York City Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen the valley residents’ donations before returning home.
The ‘same page’
In the years that followed, Tillotson and Goodwin watched as a flood of federal funds drastically changed the first responder landscape.
“They poured billions upon billions into improvements for fire, police and ambulance,” Goodwin recalled.
Tillotson, now recovered from his initial shock, felt his passion for firefighting reignited by an outpouring of support from the public.
“The Department of Homeland Security and Federal Communications Commission put so much money and effort into getting us all on the same page,” he said.
Prior to 9/11, inter-agency training exercises occurred once every couple of years. Nowadays, Tillotson said his firefighters engage in inter-agency training 2-3 times a year. Back then, most agencies didn’t have open lines with each other, and technology was so diverse, it might be impossible for two agencies responding to the same crisis to communicate electronically, Tillotson said.
At the turn of the millennium, many fire departments were still volunteer agencies, and few had the millions of dollars needed to upgrade their communications.
“Part of the work done by the 9/11 Commission was to recognize you couldn’t have your public service sector on different ends of the radio spectrum,” Tillotson said. “Before 9/11, you had some agencies on (Ultra High Frequency), and the neighboring agency might be on a (Very High Frequency).”
Homeland Security, an agency borne out of the events of 9/11, provided grants to purchase digitally trunked communication systems, which enables one user group to communicate with another user or group via a computer-assigned channel to make each call.
Trunking is based on the idea that not all users or groups who need to communicate in a channel will do so at the same time; and therefore, a trunked system can host more users or groups than there are channels in the system, according to the Tait Radio Academy.
“In the valley, that message of everyone being on the same page was heeded,” Tillotson said. “We saw the need, because we could easily be overwhelmed by a mass casualty event.”
Before the towers fell, managing several agencies responding to major catastrophes was not a widespread practice outside of fighting wildfire, Goodwin said.
“(Mandates from the federal government) changed the way we teach incident management systems,” he said. “They created standards that crossed state lines.”
Incident management wasn’t a novel idea. Goodwin said it began as large wildfires plagued California in the 1970s.
“They had a system that allowed them to call up every available firefighter in a region, and they would respond,” he explained. “When you get that many resources together, they have to be managed. That requires a system that breaks everything up into pieces — operations, logistics, divisions and so on.”
The lack of a nationwide management system contributed to the challenges first responders faced on 9/11. When the New Jersey Port Authority put out a call for additional resources from around the nation, they were quickly swamped by the number of responders and the need to feed, house and manage them, Goodwin said.
While the 9/11 funding has since dried up, emergency response continues to adapt. Goodwin said firefighters still encounter communication dead zones, but in Carbondale, many new buildings feature radio repeaters in their designs, allowing for better two-way radio reception.
“High rises remain a challenge, because our ladders can only go so far,” he said. “But we are lucky in the valley, because we don’t have many tall buildings.”
Both Tillotson and Goodwin said training, day in and day out, for every conceivable situation became the new standard in the last two decades.
“Training is everything — you play like you train,” Goodwin said. “When you get in those high acuity situations, when everything hits the fan, you go back to ape-brain and what you first learned. That saves lives.”
Many of today’s first responders were children when the towers fell; some have only read about it in history books or re-watched the footage on Youtube. But for Tillotson, Goodwin and the many emergency responders who lived through it, the moment remains etched into their memories.
“It’s more than just a history lesson for me,” Tillotson said. “I don’t know what that day means to the younger generations, but it will always be a part of my life, my career.”
Reporter Ike Fredregill can be reached at 970-384-9154 or by email at email@example.com.
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