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What Can Responders Learn from Sept. 11?

What was learned from these incidents and what steps must we take to protect ourselves in the future?

By Dr. Mark A. Friend, CSP

In May, as a professor of occupational safety at East Carolina University, I led a group, including six graduate students in occupational safety, and my wife on a trip to view the remains of the World Trade Center and the damaged Pentagon. These were the centerpieces of each leg of the journey beginning in Washington and concluding in New York City.

The trip was not only to be a learning experience for the students but also for me. The main objective was to consider the events of Sept. 11 and how we, as a nation, were prepared for those events and lessons learned.

We interviewed representatives of construction companies, first responders, the military, insurance companies, federal, state and local government agencies, and nearly anyone who had a story to tell about the tragedies they had been through. Our informal hosts even included a cab driver who drove us around the district as he recounted watching a low-flying plane dip below the horizon before the Pentagon crash.

What was learned from these incidents and what steps must we take to protect ourselves in the future? These are my personal observations - based on a mixture of others' opinions, what I saw and my experience after decades of work in the field of occupational safety.

Lessons Learned

Recognize the face of terrorism. The enemy lives among us. He socializes, works and moves around with the same freedoms as nearly every U.S. citizen. Terrorists have access to much information and know about our vulnerabilities because they have been studying our weaknesses. They pose as tourists, students, employees and concerned Americans.

Protect U.S. perimeter. Few of us likely favor isolationism, but standard safety practice tells us to protect our perimeters and spread them as far as possible from the points needing protection. The Sept. 11 terrorists were living and moving among us, and we were accepting of them and their behaviors prior to the hijackings. We should reconsider who enters our country and how they transact business.

Improve screening. Newcomers should continue to undergo careful screening. Those from countries known to sponsor and harbor terrorists should thoroughly justify their need for entry into the United States. The costs of investigation and screening should be passed along to visa applicants. Upon entry into the United States, visas should be required to travel, rent a car or conduct certain business using credit cards, checks or any currency. Visas should also be required to obtain U.S. currency.

Establish national ID cards. Citizens and permanent residents of the United States should be offered a national identity card. In most cases this identity card will be a driver's license, similar to ones used today. A new, proposed license will include a photograph and will be embedded with personal information similar to that of some credit cards. The license will be much more difficult to counterfeit and will be tied to a computer network.

Scanning for a background check will take place anytime the user attempts to purchase guns, ammunition or other weapons. Serious consideration should be given to whether certain other purchases, enrollment in some curriculums or other activity should also require scanning.

Identify potential targets. We also need to carefully evaluate points of potential terrorist activity and begin to protect ourselves. A program similar to the one required in SARA Title III would be useful.

State emergency response committees and local emergency planning committees should evaluate points of vulnerability based upon criteria developed at the federal level. Water supplies, utilities, public gathering places and facilities critical to national and local well-being should be evaluated and plans drawn to control access to each.

Events of large public gatherings should prohibit the introduction of coolers, large containers, and other convenient methods of introduction of explosives. Containers large enough to permit the introduction of cheap explosives also should be prohibited, without first being checked, in government and other public buildings. Trash receptacles should be constructed of wire mesh and placed in protected locations away from crowds or other public gatherings.

Limit building access. Zoning and building regulations should be carefully evaluated for vulnerability to potential terrorist attack. Key infrastructure facilities for all government operations should be protected with limited means of access and secure openings.

Careful consideration should be given to proximity of parking and barriers between vehicles and facilities. Shrubs and other natural barriers are attractive and cost-effective means of keeping unwanted vehicles out.

At some public buildings observed on the trip, new consideration has been given to fire and blast resistance of materials being used. Roofing materials, windows and overall construction patterns are being rethought with resistance to acts of terrorism in mind.

Incident management. Thought must be given as to how to deal with the large influx of volunteers, would-be volunteers and others converging on the scene, as is typical in a major disaster. Untrained volunteers and those not familiar with standard operating procedures (SOPs) of the emergency can be a hindrance. SOPs for terrorist-inspired disasters must be developed regarding aspects similar to those now used in dealing with hazardous materials spills. Individuals wishing to participate in the volunteer process will be trained in these procedures and can be integrated into the incident command system with minimal efforts.

Key safety issues must be addressed regarding use of personal protective equipment, construction or demolition activities and chain of command. In the first days following Sept. 11, untrained volunteers sometimes placed themselves and rescue workers at risk. Appropriate screening procedures and credentials should be prepared and distributed to individuals authorized to be on site. These can be changed frequently to discourage counterfeiting.

Evacuation plans. Decisions must be made as to whether to evacuate or protect in place. New York City likely cannot be evacuated, yet our large cities, such as New York, Los Angeles and Washington, are prime targets.

We must determine what facilities can be used within given geographical areas to house and protect large portions of the population as they are moved within the city or to areas adjacent to the city. Decisions as to when and where to move need to be made in advance, and plans must be in place to accommodate victims of large-scale disasters.

Although many of the victims of 9/11 lived in boroughs adjacent to Manhattan, evacuation was effectively blocked due to bridges and tunnels being closed for the emergency. Cities depending upon points likely to bottleneck during an emergency should develop strategies for maintaining or quickly evaluating the security of such points by allowing bridges, tunnels and major highways to remain in use.

Public transportation also was impaired. Following a major disaster, arrangements must be made to transport people to their homes or provide shelters where they can be housed and fed.

Thought must be given to caring for children and others dependent on detained employees during emergencies. Standard protocol for schools, daycare establishments and summer camps should be published and practiced. Individuals need to think through and practice personal evacuation plans and how they will bring their family back together following a major disaster.

Emergency response. We were surprised in one location to see state-of-the art computers linked with the latest technology in a modern, complete emergency response center. New furniture, lighting and pleasant surroundings made for an ideal place to serve as a command center for any major emergency. Everything there sat idle, waiting for the next major problem.

Communications equipment and emergency response systems should be built into daily activities and routines to the extent possible. Responders need to be familiar with every aspect of the hardware and software they are using. Internet systems permit linkages from every desk and laptop computer in the state. Backup systems may include wireless phone and Internet connectivity.

One of the keys to ensuring the usability and workability of any system is to integrate it into the daily routine. State-of-the-art computer systems become obsolete so quickly anyway that it makes sense to use such a large investment for multiple purposes.

Pre-disaster planning. Quick decisions were made concerning who had the capabilities and the capacity to handle the recovery and demolition work at hand. Key firms, capable of mounting large-scale rescue, recovery and demolition work, must be identified.

Representatives who will serve as coordinators of team efforts need to meet and make as many pre-disaster decisions as possible. Standard operating procedures, based on lessons learned ,must be developed for use among them.

At the height of the World Trade Center response, equipment was operated seven days per week, 24 hours per day. There were as many as nine huge cranes operating on-site at any point in a relatively small space. Carbon monoxide generation was a problem, as was a lack of sanitary facilities.

Debris would sometimes be glowing hot with temperatures just underground as high as 1,100 degrees. Cranes might pull on an exposed piece of metal to remove it and underground attachments could tug on a debris pile 50 feet away. Workers standing on that debris pile could have been seriously injured or maimed. The specialized expertise required to handle such projects should be identified before it is needed again.


Much work has been done regarding the future safety and security of our institutions and our people. The events of Sept. 11 will continue to be examined for clues as to how to prevent such occurrences from happening again.

Some of the suggestions made here will be time-consuming and expensive, but the return on investment will make them worthwhile for the benefit of the well-being of U.S. citizens and our way of life.

Dr. Mark A. Friend, CSP, is a professor of occupational safety in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences & Safety at East Carolina University.

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