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Since 9/11: a culture of awareness


As we reflect on the catastrophic events of Sept. 11, 2001, the nation finds itself facing many difficult questions about security and preparedness against natural and man-caused disasters.

This 9/11 remembrance is about those who lost their lives 10 years ago. It wasn’t the first time America was attacked. On Dec. 7, it will be 70 years since Pearl Harbor was bombed and, just as on 9/11, thousands of Americans were killed.

As the jets crashed into and crumbled the World Trade Center and punctured a hole in the Pentagon, there was no doubt at that moment the world was witnessing a demarcation point that shattered the long-held notion of the security of the country.

Erroll Southers, USC professor and counter-terrorism expert, says, “I could not believe that someone could mount, plan, finance, [and] strategize for an attack like that. I kept thinking that I was going to wake up the next day and it wasn’t going to be as bad as it was.”

Like so many, he lost a friend, Douglas Carpool, security director at the Would Trade Center. “I called to ask if anyone had seen Doug; they said he was last seen entering the building on his cell phone to rescue trapped victims, but was never seen again.”

Over the last 10 years, “Never forget” has become a rallying cry for Americans. The federal, state and local law enforcement and first responders have used the tragic mistakes and successes as lessons to improve emergency management procedures as far away as Los Angeles.

Philip Sanchez, Pasadena chief of police, says 9/11 brought about a greater urgency for “collaborative behavior.” He adds, “It has caused law enforcement to assess their ability to respond to a major incident.”

Sanchez also says the public and the media have an important role in the equation because “information is the lifeblood of preparedness.”

Los Angeles is a natural disaster capital of the world–fires, floods, and earthquakes. While natural catastrophes seem common, first-response agencies continue to be vigilant about terrorism.

According to law-enforcement officials, inter-agency cooperation in California has always been ahead of the rest of the nation because we’ve always played well together in the sandbox.

Southers says he feel better about the security from terrorists in the city, because there is more cooperation between the agencies responsible for our safety.

“They are training, planning, and exercising together, as well as sharing information,” says Southers. “We are in each other’s Blackberry. Ten years ago this would not have been possible. Washington has always recognized that, too.”

As the nation’s East Coast recovers from a recent 4.5 earthquake and Hurricane Irene, Los Angeles emergency response officials continue to be in touch with their counterparts, exchanging information.

The lead agency responsible for coordinating response, recovery, and mitigation efforts after man-made and natural emergencies for Los Angeles is the Emergency Management Department.

James Featherstone, general manager of Los Angeles EMD, says the area is prone to 13 of 16 possible federally identified natural and man-made threats. They include earthquakes, fires, severe weather, flooding, extreme heat, extreme cold, landslides, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, terrorism, cyber crime, public health and chemical emergencies.

Featherstone says the importance of readiness as a city and for residents cannot be overstated. The EMD can mobilize within minutes of a major disaster event.

Los Angeles is in a better position to protect its infrastructure and to inform and educate its citizens because of its experience with nature disasters. Experts are spending more resources than ever to prevent man-made disaster where the results are often death, injury and structural collapse.

Featherstone says, “If you hear hoofbeats think horses, but someone should be looking for zebras. We are always asking, is there anything we’re missing. The unpreparedness by security experts prior to 9/11 was a result of a failure of imagination.”

There are significant critical infrastructures in the Los Angeles area, including LAX, and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, utility grids, and the massive freeway networks.

But citizens should feel more secure today than 10 years ago, primarily because they are more informed. According to Sanchez, one of the standards created by 9/11 was an expectation of awareness. Today, people are more aware of their community.

“First responders are only limited in their ability to mitigate these issues by the public’s willingness to stay involved,” says Sanchez. “9/11 begged for a culture of awareness. I think that 9/11 has shown us that we are connected. If we want to honor the men and women who sacrificed their lives–first responders and innocent victims–let’s do that by building a cultural awareness.

We must shoulder the responsibility of our brothers and sisters and their issues by volunteering, and showing a sense of patriotism. This will keep the authority in the best position to respond and alleviate an incident.”