Learning from Sacrifice
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2011
In July, a few days after 76 people were killed in the terrorist attacks in Norway, the Norwegian crime novelist Jo Nesbo wrote a column for The New York Times. The title, "The Past Is a Foreign Country," caught my attention. Nesbo wrote movingly about how horrible events change the world forever. Describing Norway as a place where people had never had to think about security concerns, he said, "There is no road back to the way it was before."
Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, Americans know exactly what Nesbo means. It is hard to remember now how different life was before that day, when hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, and it is not just security lines at airports and screenings in high-rise office buildings that signify the change. All of us are more aware and more wary. Innocent occurrences trigger dire possibilities in ways they did not before. Perhaps those fears will dissipate over time, but for everyone who was old enough to understand what was happening, 9/11 will never fully disappear from memory.
The events of 9/11 also set off a series of efforts to review the practical steps that could be taken to prevent further attacks or to mitigate the damage if they occurred. Those activities were very familiar to NFPA, because the process of learning from tragedy and using those experiences to find practical ways to save lives has been a large part of what we have always done.
The 9/11 Commission Report recommendations that were adopted into law included the directive that NFPA 1600®, Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs, be the national emergency preparedness standard. This basic planning document is a practical roadmap to emergency planning for all organizations. But the use of NFPA 1600 has been spottier than we hoped; at the highest levels of government, interest in encouraging greater disaster preparedness has waned as fiscal challenges have grown.
We have seen the same uneven response to the effort to improve equipment, training, and operation of fire departments. Since 9/11, NFPA has published three assessments of the nation’s fire service. Congress has continued to fund the Fire Grant Program to close the gap on critical needs such as training and equipment, but the overall effort has fallen far short of expectations. Our most recent assessment shows that much still needs to be done to get our nation’s emergency services to the level that basic prudence requires. There is a real threat that this federal assistance will fall victim to the budget deficits, even as states and local communities cut back on their own support for fire departments.
There are those who say that 10 years after 9/11, and with Osama Bin Laden finally dead, it is time to stop living our lives as though another attack were imminent. I agree with that. But it is never time to ignore lessons that might save lives, and it is never right for society to act imprudently with regard to protecting public safety. Ten years later, we owe our continued commitment to all who lost their lives on 9/11, especially the firefighters and other emergency responders, to make sure that what we learned from their sacrifice will be used to the full extent possible to keep others from having to experience anything like it ever again. That is the closest we can ever hope to get to a road back to the way it was before.