It’s been 10 years since 9/11. And the battle EMS is facing today is a much different one than it was then.
Then, we had the mountain of homeland security to conquer. Targets needed hardened, plans developed, assets acquired, concepts tested, people trained, communications bolstered, fail-safes implemented, capacities grown. We didn’t perfect it, but across the board, in the emergency services and even in the oft-forgotten realm of EMS, we improved a lot.
As they say, getting there is one thing, staying there another. The recession of the latter decade kicked us all in the teeth, hitting many communities so hard that even public safety—once holy and untouchable to leaders currying local favor—came to the chopping block. Whole departments fell, many lost personnel, and everyone’s fiscal existence came under unprecendented levels of scrutiny.
That continues, with no end in sight. So the challenge for EMS and rescue systems today shapes up much differently than a decade ago. Today, it’s not about getting, but about sustaining what we have. It’s about maintenance—keeping up capabilities and the level of preparedness communities expect and deserve, even as revenues dwindle and operations are stretched. That may ultimately prove the tougher task.
On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, EMS World surveyed six top EMS leaders about what’s changed for the better, what’s not changed enough, and how we might navigate an uncertain future in a world that’s still plenty threatening. There aren’t a lot of easy answers—so perhaps we’d better get busy on the hard ones.
President, National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians; Captain, Johnson Co. Med-Act (Kan.)
Coming out of 9/11, what did you see as the greatest needs for EMS in its preparedness for terrorism and major MCIs?
It was a wake-up call for all of us. I think that was hard for some people to get their minds around the fact that we might not be safe or welcome on scenes—that someone might try to hurt us. And I think it became clear that we weren’t really prepared to deal with mass casualties, and having that many patients at a time, and we were not ready to deal with our own losses of the magnitude we experienced that day.
How would you evaluate our preparedness efforts over the last 10 years? Where are we better off today, and where have we fallen short?
I think a lot of EMS agencies have made and improved their plans for what to do in catastrophic situations such as that. There has been some help from the federal government to obtain equipment and training for those things. But I don’t think we’re as prepared as we need to be yet. There are a number of agencies that still don’t have the proper equipment and training to deal with those kinds of situations.
What’s changed the most for you locally there in Johnson County?
Well, even before 2001 we were doing mass-casualty drills. So we just magnified those a bit, and we were able to get appropriate equipment—monitoring equipment and protective gear and things like that—through grants. We’re fortunate to be a government-based service; that gives us an advantage in getting grants and equipment and training that some private and hospital-based ambulances don’t have. There’s still a disconnect on that.
Do you see any of our gains being threatened by cutbacks in this tough economy? How should we go about sustaining what we’ve achieved?
The only way we can sustain what we’ve achieved is to continue to advocate for protecting our level of preparedness. I don’t think we can focus completely on 9/11-type disasters; we have disasters every day in communities across the country. I live in a town of 300 people, so for a small service like mine, a mass-casualty situation might be a big accident with 10 patients, because that would really tax our resources.