On the Pile: Making connections at Ground Zero

Being in the center of one of the world's great media cities, the attacks on the World Trade Center had instantaneous and comprehensive coverage. Pictures emerged from every angle and 10 years of stories covered every nuance of those attacks.

Just under 3,000 people were killed in the New York alone, including a large number of New York City firefighters, police officers, workers of the Port Authority and private emergency workers.

The rescue and cleanup started almost instantly in New York, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pa., where the passenger jets crashed.

Dan Wills was a battalion chief for the Sedona Fire Department in 2001. But Wills was also a member of one of the 16 national Incident Management Teams. The highly skilled specialist teams usually are only brought in, sometimes from a distance, to manage very large wildfires or other large emergencies. Type-1 teams have skills to organize efficiently and economically. There are two such teams in the Southwest, mainly populated by firefighters. Other members of Van Bateman's team hailed from Flagstaff and elsewhere in Arizona and New Mexico.

"As part of a Type 1 Incident Management Team, they only send us to the biggest and largest," says Wills.

While the media immediately dubbed the point of New York attacks "Ground Zero," the rubble from the world's formerly tallest buildings was called "the Pile" by those that worked there in the aftermath pawing through the rubble looking for survivors, or at least their remains.

So Wills was among Van Bateman's Southwest Incident Management Team, which was dispatched within hours of the New York City destruction. The Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan became the command post operating a mobilization, receiving and distribution center from a warehouse adjacent to the convention center. The planning section worked closely with the New York City Fire Department.

A second incident management team was based in Edison, N.J., planning logistics operations in support of the WTC incident to assist with the movement of supplies, equipment and personnel.

Wills was in charge of communications linking numerous organizations.

"The public was rattled... really...for a pretty short window of time. Regular New Yorkers are pretty resilient and bounce back fairly quickly," Wills believes.

"In terms of being at Ground Zero, I think people had this expectation that everybody would be rattled, but it was just a very busy, busy place. Everybody had their head down, doing their job. Consequently, no one was sitting back, with that "Oh, my God!' thing. Everybody was just too busy. There is just a lot of things going on and just a very busy place."

Today, Wills is contracted to Homeland Security and teaches several weeks every month all over the country.

"We talk those attacks all the time. It is part of what we teach. We learned a lot there, we learned a lot from a lot of different disasters over the years. I have done a number of significant experiences in Incident Management. I ran communications on the Rodeo-Chedeski Fire the year after the World Trade Center, with just under a half-million acres in northeastern Arizona. I have been involved in some very large incidents."

The "Pile' was different because of its scale.

"This was certainly the most unique, probably, just by the urban nature, but also by the size and the scale of the incident were pretty substantial.

"I teach under contract for Homeland Security. We teach tactical communications for people in those roles. One thing that especially came out of that period of time: we work very hard trying to get organizations to try to talk with one another. The term is called "interoperability.' We'd teach the mechanical aspects of how to get contact with one another. But, another part of it is that you are trying to get different cultures to talk to one another."

"Every different organization has a different organizational culture. The police have a different organizational culture than the fire department. The military, certainly, has a different one that it's civilian counterparts. That's part of emergency management too: just how to deal with those cultural differences and how to get people to become effective."

Wills said he came into contact with many agencies for the first time.

"Providing support to organizations you typically don't see or don't work with... there was a lot of different organizations you don't run into. We were dealing with the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, New York State, FDNY, a lot of federal agencies, groups we'd call DMAT (Disaster Medical Assistance Team), DMORT (Disaster Mortuary Teams) and the VMAT (the Veterinary Medical Teams). We had two shifts of VMAT there just taking care of search dogs. Everyone of those is unique."

"Some of the issues were really culture wars. The FDNY, for example. The New York City Fire Department is very unaccustomed to having assistance from the outside. It is a huge organization with 800 Battalion Chiefs, for example."

Sept. 11 brought the FDNY a new viewpoint from the outside, Wills recalls.

"They didn't go out to do things in the past, and they were pretty internally self-sufficient. It took a little work to bridge that gap. Since then and to this day, FDNY is much more integrated than they ever were before 9/11. They wanted to stay involved and, in fact, there are still two FDNY Battalion Chiefs on the Southwest Incident Management Team. It was a remarkable learning experience for them. FDNY today has its own Incident Management Team. That team was one of the teams sent to "Katrina.'"

The best part of communications is still face-to-face, according to Wills. Everything else is a compromise of some sort.

"We are also always working on "Plan B.' What if what you are doing doesn't work, what's next?" he said. "Throwing your arms up and saying "this isn't going to work' isn't acceptable. You always have to have something else to pull out of your hat. That's one of the things we teach: to constantly be thinking about what is next. What are you going to do about any one of a number of things failing? That's the nature of incident management. It is pretty dynamic animal and stuff breaks.

"Things went remarkably well, in many cases, by accident. If you were to ask somebody, "Who is in charge?' there were several agencies with concurrent authority doing work there. I think Rudy Giuliani finally stood up and said, "I am in charge,' and everyone said, "OK.'"

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