A tsunami in the Indian Ocean. An earthquake in Turkey, and a monsoon in Southeast Asia. Hurricanes in Florida and the Caribbean. The almost simultaneous bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In addition, the nightclub fires in Indonesia and Argentina, and the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 against three of the most easily recognized buildings in the world: the Pentagon, and New York City’s World Trade Towers.

Some of these were what are called “natural” disasters. The others were manmade, and at least a few of the latter, perhaps, might have been prevented.  All had much in common, though, beginning with the horrendous cost, not only in lives and human suffering but also in the national fortunes spent in rescues and recovery, rehabilitation, and reconstruction.

The two most important of the numerous lessons that can be learned from each of these cataclysmic events are: First, it could have been worse-and almost assuredly would have been were it not for the heroic efforts and professional skills of the firemen, policemen, medical and military personnel, and other first responders who rushed to the scene and worked countless hours to save those who were still living, recover the bodies of the dead, and mitigate the collateral damage and lingering aftereffects of whatever happened.

The second lesson is the diametric opposite of the first: There would not have been as many deaths, as much suffering, and/or as much physical and structural damage if there had been, beforehand: better planning and communications; more, and more frequent, training; and more and better equipment of all types.

When the United States was a small child it was much like any other nation in the world at the same stage of development: a somewhat ragtag aggregation of small towns and villages punctuated here and there by a larger urban area and, every hundred miles or so, a small or medium-sized city. The local police chief, in most if not quite all of the towns and villages, was the only man on the force. He sometimes doubled his duties and responsibilities, but not his salary, by also serving as the local fire chief.

As time passed and towns grew into cities-and the cities grew in size, population, and complexity-the police and fire departments became bigger and more professional. Also better equipped. Even a relatively small city would have several fire stations and several police precincts.eally, each and all would be manned, preferably by career professionals, around the clock.eally, each and all would be provided the best, latest, and most effective equipment. City budgets being what they are, theeal was the rare exception.

Complex and Hazardous Reality Urban disasters, particularly of the manmade variety, also grew in both size and complexity, especially if there were political factors involved, which was increasingly the case. Policemen and firemen knew from the start that they would have to work together, and they did-particularly in fighting fires. The policemen would keep the area clear, and keep traffic moving, while the firemen would put out the fire. Also on the scene, and ready to help, if needed, were an ambulance and one or more doctors, nurses, and/or other medical people. Collectively, all of these people were the original first responders.

Today’s world is much more complex, and the stakes are much higher-by an almost incalculable order of magnitude. There are hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of people who live and/or work in the modern American city. They come to work by train, plane, bus, subway, or private car. They depend, and the nation’s economy depends, on the free flow of traffic not only on the open highway but also through tunnels and over bridges.

They-and, again, the nation’s economy-also depend and usually can count on reliable communications (telephones, Faxes, the Internet) as well as heat, light, water, electric power, trash removal, and all of the other necessities provided by and through the modern urban infrastructure.

None of these can any longer be taken for granted, because all have become targets for terrorists. So have banks, power plants, football and baseball stadiums, passenger aircraft, railroad terminals, cruise ships, and even schools and churches.

That grim reality of the 21st century makes the already difficult job of first responders much more complex and, at the same time, immensely more hazordous. The firemen and policemen who were first on the scene at the World Trade Center faced a disaster of unprecedented dimensions: thousands of people already dead or dying; hundreds of others seriously injured; literally hundreds of thousands of citizens trying to flee the city by one escape route or another. But almost all of the city’s bridges and tunnels were closed. And so were the ferries. To most New Yorkers, and the tens of millions of their horrified countrymen looking on through television, there seemed to be absolutely No Way Out.

Dunkirk in the Port of New York As it has so many times before, the United States Coast Guard came to the rescue and quickly improvised an almost perfect plan of attack by using the city ferries and scores of yachts, sailing vessels, and other small craft to carry out an evacuation larger even than the legendary Dunkirk evacuation carried out by the British in the early years of World War II. It is worth recalling that much of the success of that evacuation, which resulted in the safe return to England of almost 350,000 troops-who thus would live to fight another day–was due to the efforts of the yacht owners, weekend sailors, and other private citizens who risked their own lives to cross the English Channel time after time to rescue the troops who had been left stranded on the Dunkirk beachhead. Before the global war on terrorism is ended, the private citizens of the United States may have to face similar or even greater challenges.

The Coast Guard had been the premier federal first-responder agency long before 9/ll, of course, and, with FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), had considerable experience in working with local police and fire departments. This time it received a huge helping hand from the U.S. Navy. Within minutes after the word had flashed through Washington about the attacks on New York City, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Vern Clark called Admiral James M. Loy, the commandant of the Coast Guard (and now the deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security), and asked, “How can we help?” The two leaders quickly agreed on a plan through which the Navy would put its East Coast ships and personnel to work helping out the Coast Guard not only with the evacuation but also with the USCG’s everyday duties and responsibilities up and down the coast.

What has happened since 9/11, of course, is that all of the nation’s armed services, and many other federal offices and agencies, have joined the first-responder community. In the mid-1990s, the U.S. Marine Corps, which for many years has been probably the most forward-looking of all the services in planning for tomorrow’s unforeseen attack, formed an inelegantly named emergency team called CBIRF (Chemical/Biological Incident Response Force)-not to fill a perceived Marine Corps need but as a national asset that could be used by the commander in chief to cope with any disaster, civil or military, that might develop in the future. As it turned out, the CBIRF was needed, and was used to good effect, to cope with the anthrax-by-mail incidents that cleared out Capitol Hill a few weeks after 9/11.

The Air Force, which patrolled the nation’s skies during and for several weeks after 9/ll-and was prepared, if necessary, to shoot down unidentified aircraft that did not quickly and accuratelyentify themselves-also is on the first-responder team. So are the U.S. Army, the nation’s Guard and Reserve components, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, the American Red Cross (a charter member of the team, it should be noted), and scores of other private-sector organizations and associations.

DHS, Congress and the Private Sector All of which helps, but is only the beginning. There is still considerable work to be done. The Department of Homeland Security has been well and truly launched, but still has a host of organizational issues to resolve-which was foreseen when the controversial but absolutely necessary decision was made to form a major new federal department from 22 previously scattered offices and agencies.

Congress also has some extraordinarily complex legislative, jurisdictional, and budgetary problems to cope with-and not much time to do it, because the entire federal government is now on a fast-moving train. The first-responder community is no longer restricted to firemen, policemen, nurses and doctors, and other local agencies. It is now citywide, countywide, statewide, and federal. And, as the tsunami relief effort demonstrates, rapidly becoming international.

In some areas, the private sector has taken the lead-for example, in the development, testing, and production of detection equipment, communications systems, and armored vests and other personal-protection gear. Some colleges and universities now offer undergraduate courses and even degrees in domestic preparedness, terrorism and counterterrorism, and building, business, and cyberspace security. War games of ever-increasing complexity are now being fought both at the highest levels of government-some of them requiring the personal participation of the president-and at all of the nation’s senior service schools. Almost all of Washington’s  think tanks now have preparedness professionals on their staffs, and many of them double as faculty members at Georgetown, The George Washington University, and other colleges and universities.

The terrorists behind 9/11 and other international crimes, and the ill-advised nations that support terrorism in various ways, are counting on the so-called “spiral of fear” to win their unending war against the free nations of the world. The continued growth, professionalism, and diversity of the U.S. and allied first-responder community is, in contrast, a spiral of hope – – and the most important and effective tool available to the leaders of the Free World today. And tomorrow, and far into the future.

There is light on the horizon. Whether it is the twilight of civilization, or the dawn of a new day for all peoples of the world, has yet to be determined.

James D. Hessman

James D. Hessman is former editor in chief of both the Navy League’s Sea Power Magazine and the League’s annual Almanac of Seapower. Prior to that dual assignment he was senior editor of Armed Forces Journal International.

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