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Eleven Years After, the Bell Still Tolls

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-09-11
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And so another September 11th has come upon us.  A day and a date once more reflected, whose meaning is saturated with heartache, with horror, and with heroism. 

For those of us in the 9-1-1 business, professionals in the realm of public safety communications, September 11th has a very unique ring.  For us it tolls with the low, baritone gong of the funeral procession, since so many of our brothers and sisters in the first responder community perished as a result of those heinous acts of warfare against our country and our way of life.  We, who have dedicated ourselves or at least entered into a profession whereby our mission is to help people during calamity, in emergencies small and large, perceived or very clear, generally have (or should have) a symbiotic partnership with the responder community on the other side of our headsets.  While it’s not always recognized as such by the media or the public or even by the emergency personnel whose lifelines we hold through our attentive ears and intuitive perception on their radio channels and telephone lines, the public safety telecommunicator is the alter-ego of the police officer, paramedic, or fire company rushing in to keep the peace, provide the necessary medical aid, or rescue the imperiled.  Their partner and aide in their mission of public safety and peacekeeping.

When there is a loss in the public safety community – whether it’s a highway patrolman shot during a routine traffic stop in Northern California, a New Hampshire fire chief felled by an on-duty heart attack, a Michigan police officer shot to death while attempting to resolve a domestic dispute, or a motorcycle officer killed by an errant motorist during a presidential motorcade in Florida (all of which happened in the last few days) – those of us on the other side of their radios feel it as keenly as their colleagues out in the field do.  In the case of 9/11, the sheer quantity of public safety deaths caused by those crumbling towers weigh heavily on the public safety communications community.  We mourn those thousands of civilians who died, victims of terrorist hijackers and their commandeered weapons of mass destruction, but we likely feel the deaths of our compatriots in public safety response – those who rushed in to help, who trod up acres of stairs attempting to rescue people trapped in those massive pillars of concrete and humanity – a little more keenly.  For many dispatchers, the embadged heroes of 9/11, whose collective final resting place became the pile of dust and debris that became known as ground zero (and is now known as the National September 11 Memorial & Museum), were voices they’d spoken to throughout their careers, and likely even hours earlier, on the radio or the department phones.  For all public safety dispatchers, 9/11 was a family catastrophe.  Over and above what that day meant to our national consciousness, it was a terrible blow to our public safety family, upon whose heads the towers were made to collapse through the hatred bred by a small portion of ideological extremists. 

Through the passing of nearly a dozen years, our personal politics, our partisan preferences, and our perspective regarding reactions and responses to 9/11 by our government and military leaders and a phalanx of various experts in homeland security, disaster management, and anti-terrorism, our hearts still bleed from the wounds our family suffered on that Tuesday morning early in September, 2001.  Each anniversary date since has brought these memories and their attendant feelings back to the surface, in one form of another.  Some of us still have stress reactions, as endlessly repeated televised images of burning and collapsing towers, recycled soundbytes from commentators, and repeated extracts from broadcast radio transmissions are burned anew into our collective personal and public safety psyche.  Some, those who went to NYC as responders or volunteers (including dispatchers and communications specialists on the FEMA Task Forces), still suffer from very real physical health issues from the conditions at ground zero. We also continue to share a national heartbreak on this hallowed day, a remembrance of when we truly came together as a nation with a shared sense of grief, outrage, and uncertainty.  In that sense, our public safety family may serve as our comfort and counselor to quell our stress on these anniversary dates, and it’s important to share such potent and affecting moments with others who understand and have been there as well. 

The fact is that while time heals some wounds, time does not heal all of them, and even now, more than a decade apart from that sad date of infamy, many of the wounds placed upon the public safety community by 9/11 continue to fester within us.  In one respect, that reawakening of our pain and grief every September 11th is a way of continuing to respect our fallen brethren of 9/11, and with every shed tear we honor their sacrifice anew.  Then, like the surviving first responders of New York City, Arlington Virginia, Somerset County, Pennsylvania, we carry on.  We climb the next set of stairs – for us: answer the next 9-1-1 call, coordinate the next major incident response, do our duty with pride, compassion, and professionalism, and continue to be there for our communities when they need us to be. 

Even while the bell tolls for us, we continue to do our duty.  And we shall never forget.

- Randall D. Larson
  Sept. 11, 2012

9-1-1 Magazine Editor Randall Larson retired in 2009 after 25 years as a communications supervisor and Field Communications Director for the San Jose Fire Department.  Larson has been a Field Communications instructor for First Contact 9-1-1, the California Fire Chiefs Association – Communications Section, and other organizations, and was a Communications Specialist for FEMA’s California US&R Task Force 3.  Since retirement, Larson continues to participate in the annual California Mobile Command Center Rallies, which he founded in 2009, and is a busy writer in several fields of interest. 

For 9-1-1 magazine's original coverage of the public safety response to 9/11 and its aftermath, click here


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