Risk Management Expert Unveils Lessons Learned From 9/11

In a presentation at the World Conference on Disaster Management in Toronto this week, risk management expert John O'Connell, Ph.D., unveiled five areas in which the world has learned from the tragic events of September 11.

In his presentation, titled "World Trade Center: Lessons Learned," O'Connell, the C.V. Starr Chair of International Risk Management at Thunderbird, The American Graduate School of International Management, focused on those who respond to a terrorist attack and on ways to improve their preparedness for future events.

"What we learn from such events will allow us to build for the future, to focus on positive actions, and hopefully, change our ways of thinking," said O'Connell. "Ironically, these lessons are more easily accepted and made part of our lives after such a tragedy."

Key lessons for firefighters, police rescue units and other emergency personnel, the "first responders," include continuous training, better access to intelligence, long-term stress debriefing and the need for standardized equipment. "In some cases," said O'Connell, "communication broke down because various agencies were using incompatible equipment and different frequencies."

The radio issue was but one communication lesson learned. O'Connell cited the need for redundant communication systems to work around overloaded or damaged infrastructure. He suggested the establishment of a public safety communications system, common command systems and procedures, adopting new communication technologies and increased use of the media to train the public on emergency procedures.

Another outcome of the attacks was a severe strain on the mental health of both the general population and mental health care providers. O'Connell noted the longer an event plays out, the more mental health problems build to higher levels. Most importantly, he said, restoration of a "sense of community" is essential. "The public, especially children, need reassurance that rescue workers and our leaders are calm and focused on meeting the challenge."

O'Connell's research also confirmed that although the World Trade Center buildings were built to existing codes and able to withstand the impact of a Boeing 707, the building codes did not plan for the fuel load of the planes. O'Connell urged more standardization of building codes to deal with new threats, better means of exit for occupants and entry for fire and rescue personnel and reviewing the history of a building's construction to identify extra hazards. In reviewing the WTC construction history, he determined that asbestos was used in constructing the lower floors, but not the rest of the building.

Finally, O'Connell outlined some lessons for the business community. "The scope and urgency of security, safety and risk management challenges are increasing rapidly," he said. "We've learned that one should never underestimate a crisis. We should anticipate its growth and that the public will become aware."

He recommended that businesses reconsider concentrating their people and resources in one location, develop alternative communications systems to stay in touch with customers and employees, expand the list of business risks to include a world view and look more closely at their supply chain and inventory processes.

"Those responding to the WTC did a fantastic job. Their prior training and professionalism were exemplary. Although we owe a great debt to those who responded, perhaps our greatest obligation is to learn from the past so that even better preparation will exist in the future," said O'Connell.

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