I’ve been seeing a lot of tributes today to those who responded on 9/11/01 – the police officers, firefighters, EMTs, and civilians who responded to the WTC after the attacks. Those tributes are well deserved, but rarely do we hear or read about the ‘first’ first responders – the 9-1-1 operators who fielded calls from people trapped in the towers, and the radio dispatchers trying to coordinate chaos into some form of rational response. Call takers had to listen to trapped people plead for help, try to reassure doomed callers that help was coming, talk to relatives trying to find out what happened to a loved one or friend.
I can’t begin to imagine the situation in the New York City 9-1-1 center, and in the surrounding areas as the attacks unfolded.
Then, as the towers collapsed, to be a radio operator suddenly losing contact with rescue teams in and around the buildings, hearing the chaos as units further out relay what’s happening, and then trying to account for over 300 responders that would never give a “Code 4” (or the equivalent signal) again, the shock is unimaginable.
People at the scenes who survived, or arrived later, can at least do something. They can start digging in the debris, they can help survivors, they can stop and cry. But a dispatcher? They’re glued to a chair in a building miles away, usually without windows, and the phones don’t stop. Ever. They have to keep going in emergency mode, and they have to get everything right, no matter how they’ve been affected.
Heart attacks and strokes don’t stop happening in a city of eight million. Traffic accidents still happen. Burglaries, fires, gas leaks, downed power lines, and babies getting born in taxis trying to get to a hospital all still go on, and still have to be handled. The 9-1-1 center continues to handle these calls, even as the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor is happening.
Arlington, Virginia area dispatchers had to deal with the attack at the Pentagon. Pennsylvania dispatchers in a rural community had a plane crash thrust them into the national spotlight of a terror attack. All these centers suddenly had historic emergencies thrust into their hands, requiring immediate response. Each responded heroically.
So as most tributes recognize, and rightfully so, the Police officers, Firefighters, EMTs, civilians, and everyone else who ran towards the Twin Towers, many of whom lost their lives for doing so, every September 11 I pause to remember the dispatchers and 9-1-1 operators who couldn’t run to help, but instead sat at their consoles and tried to keep a world that was falling apart together.
So to the operators and dispatchers of New York City, Arlington Virginia, surrounding communities, the New York Port Authority, the Fire Department, the Police Department, the ambulance companies, agencies in Pennsylvania, and every other organization that had boots on the ground, this dispatcher salutes you, and says thank you for your work that day. We may never see a dispatcher or operator standing in the ranks of the honor guards at ceremonies around the nation, but I will always know you’re there, standing not behind the men and women in uniform, but alongside them, keeping them as safe as is possible in a world of chaos.
This is your day, too.