USA Sept. 10–The satellite phone Joe Stutler carries during fire season rang on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and “scared the living bejesus” out of him.
His elite Type 1 Incident Management Team had just come off a fire and the Bend, Ore., resident was elk hunting in the mountains of central Oregon, secure in the assumption that he would have a few days off before being called back to duty. He didn’t know two planes had flown into and brought down the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, another had slammed into the Pentagon and a fourth had crashed in rural Pennsylvania in coordinated terrorist attacks.
The voice on the other end told him his team was on alert, meaning it was in line to be mobilized. Two other teams had already been called up and were on their way east.
The next day, Stutler’s team was tapped and its 80 or so members boarded a plane for New York. Their assignment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency — “supply logistical support” — was vague and open-ended. His interpretation was that the team was to do what it always does, what it and other incident management teams are trained for, to “bring calm to the chaos.”
Incident management teams and the incident command system were created in the 1970s to bring order to the then-disjointed response to huge wildfires in California and Arizona. The wildland fire community grew and evolved the system into a respected organizational structure where multiple state, federal and local agencies could work together under a unified command and use the same terminology, radio frequencies and supply and contracting procedures.
Westerners are familiar with the teams, whose main function remains responding to large wildfires such as the ones that plagued the Kamiah area and the Clearwater River valley last summer. They particularly excel at long-lasting incidents and have increasingly been dispatched to disasters like floods, earthquakes and hurricanes.
So even if some find it unusual that wildland firefighters would respond to a terrorist attack, members of the incident management teams were not surprised to be called to duty.
“Sept. 11th happened and I instantly knew, and maybe some of the others on the team knew, I just had a feeling that FEMA was going to be tasking incident management teams to respond to that,” said Cathie Schmidlin of Flagstaff, Ariz., a retired Forest Service employee who served as public information officer on the Southwest Incident Management Team, the same one that managed last summer’s Motorway Complex of fires near Syringa and the Lolo Motorway.
The Southwest Team set up shop at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan to provide support to search and rescue operations and later to assist the Fire Department of New York with planning.
“One of the strengths of the incident command systems is organization, turning chaos into organization,” Schmidlin said. “It doesn’t really matter what kind of incident it is, they rely on incident management teams to bring in their expertise and organization.”
A third team, headed by Steve Gage was sent to assist and provide logistical support for the search, rescue and recovery effort at the Pentagon.
“That was our first mission — to set up and support those (urban search and rescue) teams and to get them what they needed, a place to sleep, something to eat and veterinary services for search dogs. It was the first time we have had to get dog food on an incident and it had to be a certain kind,” said Gage, who retired as chief of the Kern County Fire Department in California and now lives in Boise.
Other teams would follow to provide relief to the first ones on the scene. Stutler’s team established its command center at Edison, N.J., and started finding ways to help. The first task was to restore communication knocked out by the attacks.
“We sent our communication people down to Ground Zero to make contact with FDNY (Fire Department New York) and nobody had ever set up a radio repeater system in a city like New York, so we looked for the tallest buildings with line of sight and started distributing (repeaters).”
When they arrived, the teams found heroic efforts to rescue and recover victims underway. But they also found the effort lacked overhead support or long-range planning.
“We started looking at what needed to be done. The shock factor was just incredible. They were still in rescue mode. There were literally thousands of people there with 5-gallon buckets digging through the ash,” Stutler said. “They had no water, no food, people were literally breaking into stores and microwaving pizzas to eat. There was just no supply line to the incident itself. We took a look at how many people were there and how many people were expected to be there and we just started ordering for the command structure, bringing in supplies, showers, caterers and water and those kind of things.”
Other supplies were arriving as well. Millions of Americans moved by the attacks and desperate to lend a hand sent everything from caskets to diapers. Tractor-trailers full of stuff began to arrive. In addition to setting up radio communication, assisting with planning and providing logistical support, the teams procured warehouses and established shipping and receiving systems.
They sorted the donated goods, used what was valuable and found charities to take what wasn’t needed. Stutler’s team came up with Operation Barge, a plan to load debris from Ground Zero onto barges, then haul it to a landfill in New Jersey where it was sorted into airplane parts, building parts and body parts.
Another team stocked a warehouse with supplies and established tool sheds at Ground Zero where recovery workers could check out tools and personal protective gear.
“Guys could just walk up and say, ‘I need goggles, I need gloves.’ We had three of those set up around the site, feet from where they were working, trying to mitigate that huge debris pile,” said Mike Ferris, an information officer with one of the teams.
At the Pentagon, Gage’s team was asked to build a decontamination station for the search and rescue crews.
“Our ops (operations) people said we don’t know what that is but if you will tell us what it looks like we will build it for you,” he said. “We were just kind of jacks of all trades, helping out with record keeping and liaisoning with the FBI and other people there.”
One team connected first responders with grief counselors and even drove them to appointments. It was all the sorts of things that the first responders in the city had little experience with.
“We were identifying needs from the FDNY and they just didn’t know what they didn’t know. They didn’t know about the donated stuff and Operation Barge and the radio communication,” Stutler said. “We do that all the time and logistical support, we do that all the time, and planning for grief counseling. We had the capacity to do that so every time we identified a new task we would run it by FEMA, who were completely overwhelmed as well and they would say, ‘you bet.’ “
The feeling at Ground Zero was surreal and indescribable. Don Ferguson, a member of Stutler’s teams, was struck by the thousands of fliers posted by people looking for missing family members and the sheer volume of paper and rubbish near Ground Zero.
“Walking around Battery Park you were literally ankle deep in office rubble, paper scraps. … The lifeblood of the office was flying around in big clouds, hanging off of fire escapes and swirling around like dead leaves,” he said.
“A couple of times I picked up a piece of paper and read it and you learned real quick not to do that,” he said, explaining often the scrap would be something personal like a to-do list. “You would feel like, ‘Man, I’ve got to return this to somebody.’ “
The Southwest Team was the first to arrive at the World Trade Center and established a tight rapport with the Fire Department of New York, Schmidlin said, adding lifelong friendships were born during the recovery period.
“That is pretty special. There is this close bond between wildland and structure firefighters and when the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew, the 19 killed (at the 2013 Yarnell Fire in Arizona), a number of their firefighters came out there during the memorial service.”
The department brass quickly saw the benefits of the incident command system, said Stutler, and adopted it in the years following 9/11. They established their own teams and regularly train with the teams that manage firefighting efforts.
“The Fire Department of New York said ‘we get it,’ and to their credit they never asked for help, they had never needed it. They put together two incident management teams for the city of New York and we brought them out West on fires and trained them and gave them everything we could so they could stand up and stand by themselves.”