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Remembering Sept. 11: Tragedy wrought change

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Public safety system grows more sophisticated as communication, response systems are integrated

By Sarah Bennett

More than 400 law enforcement and emergency responders died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Of those, 343 were firefighters.

It’s been 10 years since the attacks and even though Hardin County is more than 600 miles away from the site of the twin towers, the impact of the events is evident in area police and emergency personnel.

On the morning of the attacks, emergency responders experienced a period of “inoperability” during which police, EMS and firefighters were unable to communicate with one another, said Bryce Shumate, spokesman for Radcliff Police Department.

Since then, radio technology has been upgraded and it now is easier to communicate with agencies throughout the county, he said.

“Now we have a ... system in our police department that allows our agency to utilize a computer so that even though we’re on different frequencies, our dispatcher can connect us to be able to talk on other frequencies without us even having to turn a knob,” Shumate said.

Ira Dyer, deputy director of Hardin County EMS, said the events of 9/11 opened lines of communication between emergency medical personnel and other agencies that previously didn’t exist.

“Prior to the attack on this nation, there was very little information sharing and operational planning, either from a tactical standpoint between different public safety and public health agencies,” Dyer said. “EMS was not really involved in planning and problem solving with issues that related to either one of those aspects.”

Locally, agencies have improved information sharing and now work together as a multi-disciplinary team to address community issues, he said.

“It’s not just related to security,” Dyer said. “It’s related to our overall approach to what happens in the community and how we respond.”

After 9/11 many grants were handed out to various disciplines of emergency responders, especially fire departments.

Froman Peters, chief of the Upton Fire Department, said UFD purchased a set of rescue tools and a 2,200-gallon tank truck using federal grant money from the Department of Homeland Security. The department previously had a 1,200-gallon tank.

UFD never would have been able to purchase the new tank and tools without the grant money, he said.

“We wouldn’t have bought them if we hadn’t needed them,” Peters said.

Sonora Fire Department also received grant money after 9/11, said Frank Donehoo, a member of the Radcliff Fire Department and chief of Sonora volunteers. The department’s biggest purchases with grant money were breathing apparatuses and turnout gear.

Besides grant money, Donehoo said firefighters were faced with new training courses, such as a survival and rescue course that is now mandatory to become certified.

“Throughout the years we’ve taught firefighters how to save civilians, but we’ve never really taught them how to save themselves,” he said. “That’s what the course is designed to do.

“The survival part tells you how to save yourself in a bad situation, such as wall breaches. When you get to the rescue portion, it’s designed to help you as a group of firefighters to go in there and save a down firefighter,” he said.

Firefighter safety and rapid intervention teams are something Hardin County has implemented  in the last five or six years, Donehoo said.

According to OSHA standards, he said, once making entry into a burning building, a safety team must be ready on the outside unless there is a known rescue, he said.

“Hence, a lot of the reason why a lot of departments have automatic encodes for neighboring departments, such as (SFD),” Donehoo said. “When I took over as chief two years ago, I implemented a policy that on any structure fire, Upton and Glendale are automatically encoded to go with us due to manpower situations.”

After 9/11, the police academy mandated Homeland Security training for all departments in the state, said Maj. Troy Dye, deputy chief of administration at Elizabethtown Police Department.

“Everybody had to go through that, dealing with intelligence gathering, weapons of mass destruction,” Dye said.

Police also receive intelligence briefings from state police and federal agencies, he said, regarding information law enforcement needs to be aware of.

Since 9/11, the Fusion Center has been developed in Frankfort, Dye said, which is a central hub for data and information sharing.

“That’s one of the things they ask agencies to do is submit information to the Fusion Center that we think may be important for them to disseminate out to other agencies,” he said.”

Across the board, emergency responders and law enforcement say the biggest impact 9/11 has made is a heightened level of awareness.

“Because we are close to a military base, our awareness is heightened even more as far as what kind of attacks could actually come to our military personnel,” Shumate said. “We didn’t think about those things before 9/11. We didn’t think about outside troubles, and when I say troubles, I mean things outside the United States causing problems locally.”

David Wilson, assistant supervisor at Hardin County EMS, said 9/11 has changed how responders look at situations. Not only do they look at an incident itself, he said, but the area around it as well.

“It changes the way you approach a situation,” Wilson said. “If we have a wreck out on the interstate or to assist the fire department with a chemical leak, that changes your mindset. Why is it doing this? What’s the reason behind it?”

During a mass casualty training event in July, Wilson said they simulated bombing emergency medical personnel to keep the responders on their toes.

“All it takes is for somebody to walk up in the middle of an event like that with a jacket bomb and they can disrupt the entire process of what we have to do,” he said.

Doug Finlay, Hardin County’s deputy director of emergency management, said when you are an emergency responder, the events of 9/11 are deeply affecting and touching.

“It makes you ask the question every day,” he said, “‘Is this going to be the last time I’m going to see my family?’”

Sarah Bennett can be reached at (270) 505-1750 or sbennett@thenewsenterprise.com.