Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on September 8, 2021.

Four ways 9/11 changed the world of fire and life safety forever

From first responder communications to private sector emergency preparedness, NFPA Journal has compiled a list of four items demonstrating how the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, changed the world of fire and life safety in the US forever


Saturday is the 20-year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. 

On that day in 2001, more than 2,700 people died when terrorists hijacked two planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center towers in New York City. An additional 184 people were killed in the attack on the Pentagon near Washington, DC, and 40 passengers and crew members died when a fourth hijacked plane crashed in rural Pennsylvania.

Ask the average person about how that day still influences their daily lives and they might point to one or two things. Maybe they’d think of airport security, which has tightened dramatically since 9/11. But for those in the fire and life safety community, there have been numerous changes to the way they do their jobs as a direct result of 9/11—changes that make them safer, and everyone else safer, too. 

While by no means an exhaustive list, the following four items compiled by NFPA Journal shed light on some of the positive changes to come out of what many historians, politicians, and others have called one of America’s darkest days in history.

 Watch a video overview of this list.

1. A new approach to first responder communications 

One of the greatest challenges cited by the firefighters, police officers, EMS personnel, and others who responded to the September 11 terrorist attacks—in particular the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City—was gaps in communications. In a 2011 article commemorating 9/11’s 10-year anniversary, the Associated Press called the incident “a convergence of the worst possible problems in communication technology.” 

Communication was a major challenge for first responders at the scene of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City.  FEMA Image

It’s not surprising then that one of the key recommendations to come out of the US government’s 9/11 Commission Report, published in 2004, was to create a broadband network solely dedicated to first responders. Today, that exists in the form of FirstNet, a national broadband network exclusively for first responders. The network, which was established in 2012, gives first responders in areas where large-scale incidents are occurring, from building collapses to wildfires, priority on the network—pushing off civilian users who could slow the network down.

RELATED: Listen to a podcast and read a Q&A article about FirstNet’s origins

2. Updates to codes and standards 

Two major areas where codes and standards improved because of 9/11 are first responder health and safety and high-rise safety. An article published by NFPA Journal for the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 outlined some notable updates to NFPA codes and standards in the wake of 9/11. 

NFPA 1981, Standard on Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) for Emergency Services, for example, was updated to require SCBA equipment to protect against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear attacks. Information about responding to incidents involving radioactive materials was added to NFPA 472, Competence for Responders to Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction Incidents

Codes like NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, and NFPA 5000®, Building Construction and Safety Code®, increased their requirements for exit stair width from 44 inches to 56 inches if the stairs handle occupant loads of 2,000 or more. Changes were made to NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code®, to allow mass notification signals to supersede fire alarm signals. More information about building collapse prevention and emergency planning was added to several standards. 

In 2004, NFPA also formed the High-Rise Building Safety Advisory Committee, which continues to this day to advise the committees for NFPA 101, NFPA 5000, NFPA 1, Fire Code, and other documents on safety issues in high-rise buildings. 

3. Learning what firefighters need 

If you’re familiar with NFPA, you may be familiar with its Needs Assessment of the US fire service. Published every three to five years by the NFPA Research division, the Needs Assessment provides a comprehensive picture of the most pressing needs of America’s more than 1 million career and volunteer firefighters. But did you know that the first NFPA Needs Assessment survey was conducted shortly after 9/11? In fact, the organization cited 9/11 as one of the main reasons why the first survey garnered so much participation. Over the years, these surveys and subsequent reports have led to increased funding for things like equipment and training for the fire service. 

RELATED: Read an article about the findings of the Fourth Needs Assessment of the US Fire Service, published in 2016 

4. Emergency preparedness in the private sector 

Since 1995, NFPA has published NFPA 1600, Standard on Continuity, Emergency, and Crisis Management. But after 9/11, NFPA 1600’s prominence grew significantly because the 9/11 Commission Report recommended the private sector start adopting the standard. The report called NFPA 1600 “our national preparedness standard.” 

Today, states like Connecticut have even incorporated NFPA 1600 by reference into their fire codes, while programs like FEMA’s Ready Business use NFPA 1600 as the basis for educating business owners on preparing for hazards like hurricanes. According to the Association of Continuity Professionals, in the past 15 years or so, NFPA 1600 has not only expanded its user base in North America, but also in the Middle East and Asia.

ANGELO VERZONI is an associate editor for NFPA Journal. Follow him on Twitter @angelo_verzoni. Top photograph: Michael Foran