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Memory of fallen 9/11 heroes spurs emergency response advances

by: Jaime Valdez Beaverton police and TVF&R firefighters  mark the time the Twin Towers fell 10 years ago Sunday, as Tim Birr plays the bagpipes during a private flag ceremony at Station 67.

Sunday was a day of reflection and being present in the community for Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue crews.

Beaverton Station 67 joined members of the Beaverton Police Department for a flag ceremony and moment of silence to reflect on the first responders who were killed Sept. 11, 2001, while trying to rescue others in the World Trade Center in New York.

Tigard Station 51 attended a 9/11 Remembrance event at Young's Funeral Home.

Sherwood Station 33 took part in the Countryside Community Church picnic.

Across the fire district's service area, local firefighters from each station couldn't help but remember where they were a decade ago when they learned about the terrorists attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., and watched as the Twin Towers burned and fell.

TVF and R Fire Chief Mike Duyck was then captain of Tigard Station 51 on that historic day.

'I was coming on shift like any normal day,' he recalled.

Crews coming off their 24-hour rotation and those reporting for duty were sharing coffee and visiting with one another, when Duyck turned on the television right after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center.

'Over the course of the next few hours, we sat around the TV and watched the whole scene unfold,' Duyck said. 'Like everyone else in the country, we were just in shock and couldn't believe it was happening.

'We typically run 100 calls a day, but that day was eerily quiet - we had hardly any calls for service in our fire district. Everyone seemed to be sitting around, trying to figure out what had happened to our country.'

While the nation tried to make sense of the images they were watching on their screens, local firefighters recognized the dangers technical rescue crews faced with the sheer volume of fire being fueled by the jetliners in those skyscrapers.

'We knew that their No. 1 priority would be life safety and that they would do whatever they could to get people out - to get to the people who were trapped in the floors above the fire,' Duyck said. 'We knew they were fully committed in the buildings. When the towers fell, we knew those firefighters were dead.'

Duyck described the incredible sadness and shock that filled the firehouse.

'We knew the outcome - the incredible loss of life,' he said. 'There was this feeling of wanting to do something to help, but they were over 3,000 miles away, and there was nothing we could do.'

In the aftermath

In the weeks following that tragic day, the U.S. Fire Administration called on then TVF and R Fire Chief Jeff Johnson, asking him to travel back east to work with a half-dozen fire service professionals from across the country to assist with the reorganization of the New York Fire Department.

'As an organization, they lost 343 firefighters that day - a majority of those were from their special forces,' Johnson recalled. 'The fire department was crippled, and their rescue squads were devastated.

'They were looking for another set of eyes to look at a host of organizational problems that come with that large of a life loss.'

The events of 9/11 served as a wake-up call for the emergency services industry. There were lessons learned and a host of issues that needed to be addressed before the next terrorist attack or natural disaster struck on U.S. soil.

At home, Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue played a key role in shaping the state of Oregon's emergency response plans to deal with a major disaster. Those efforts led to the creation of a statewide Urban Search and Rescue Team in Oregon.

TVF and R also joined other major fire districts to apply for several federal grants to fund rescue equipment and new emergency response technologies.

Those grants over the years have helped fund the purchase of:

  • Semi-trailers equipped with shoring equipment to stabilize buildings and collapsed structures while rescuers search for victims,

  • Thermal-imaging cameras and listening devices to search for victims and track the location of emergency crews;

  • Personal protective equipment for crews responding to weapons of mass destruction or a terrorist attack;

  • Mobile data terminals in rigs to show pre-plans of buildings and allow access to the Internet and real-time information from dispatch;

  • Technology that improves TVF and R's ability to capture data on how effective its response is to calls, process that data and use it to help design emergency response systems in a much more effective fashion.

    Firefighters along with other emergency responders have also received extensive training in how to deal with explosives and weapons of mass destruction in the aftermath of 9/11.

    Communication is key

    The importance of communication and collaboration of emergency service providers was perhaps the biggest lesson learned on that day.

    'The communication failure really lit a fire in me,' said Johnson, who continues to tackle the issue after retiring from TVF and R last year. 'It is virtually a national disgrace that we do not have a national communications system for emergency responders.'

    When people get on a plane in one state, they expect to get cell service when they land in another, he explained. That is not the case for emergency service providers, including law enforcement, medical and fire.

    'There are over 50,000 separate communication licenses that have been issued, but no single network,' Johnson said. 'Our radios work on our system alone - unless we've taken specific actions to make our system interoperable.

    'In our region, we have an interoperable system, but if we respond to a disaster in Eugene, Salem, Bend or even an event like Hurricane Katrina, our radios don't work. We just have to end that madness of everyone having their own and develop a single national network.'

    Johnson and Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue leaders are working to pass federal legislation for the creation of a national network, known as D-Block.

    'We need a public safety-grade interoperable system that will allow us to be up and running when a disaster occurs,' Duyck said. 'We're getting closer.'

    In the meantime, emergency responders in this region have embraced a holistic approach to coordinated response and cooperation between fire, law enforcement, EMS, public works and neighboring agencies, he added.

    'There is so much more collaboration today because we know we have to work together when a big incident happens,' Duyck said. 'Our response needs to be totally coordinated to be both safe and effective.

    'The progress we have made in communication has been exceptional. Collaboration occurs day to day.'

    In an effort to prepare for a natural disaster in this region, TVF and R asked voters in 2006 to support a bond to rebuild fire stations, purchase emergency response apparatus, build additional stations and make safety improvements.

    'The threat of a totally devastating earthquake is very high in this region, and we've had to look at how robust our public safety infrastructure is and our ability as an agency to respond,' Duyck said. 'We have experienced tremendous support for public safety post-9/11, and we can never take that for granted.

    'We do everything we can to make sure we'll be there when they need us.'

    Just like their brothers in New York did 10 years ago, when they rushed into the buildings as thousands streamed out, he added.

    'There is still sadness,' Duyck said. 'Being the 10th anniversary picks the scab off what happened a decade ago. It makes you relive all you felt that day.

    'It also is a great opportunity for us to connect with our community. We're thankful for the sheer number of 9/11 activities occurring in our area and how many people want to show their support. For some of us, this anniversary is a reminder that we're not done yet. There are things that we know we have to improve upon. The list has grown - we have more work to do.'