The year 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11, a series of terrorist attacks that involved 19 militants hijacking four planes to carry out attacks on United States facilities including the World Trade Center twin towers and the Pentagon.
I had the chance to catch up with Richard Serino, who is now a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, but who was chief of Boston EMS at the time. What I wanted to hear from him was what he experienced that day in his responder role.
Richard recounted that on the morning of September 11, 2001, he was about to head on his way to an interview with CBS News about the overcrowded state of Boston’s hospitals. The TV was on, and he saw footage of the first plane flying into the North Tower. Richard recounted that Boston EMS had done a drill on terrorism a few years before – the scenario practiced was a hijacked plane hitting a high-rise building in downtown Boston.
“When the first plane hit, I thought it was terrorism,” he said. “When I saw the second plane, I knew.”
Within 10 minutes Richard was headed to Mayor Menino’s office at Boston City Hall. As two of the planes had departed from Logan Airport, Deputy Superintendent Steve Lawlor (RIP) was sent there right away. Deputy Superintendent Bosse, Captain Bob “Sarge” Haley (RIP) and other personnel were dispatched from Boston EMS to Ground Zero, where there was no cellular phone service, but they were able to keep in touch using (old-style) Nextel phones within a few hours.
What stuck with Richard was that so many people were affected by 9/11. A large-scale emergency exercise had been performed by Logan Airport about one month prior to 9/11 where student actors from Emerson College portrayed the family members of passengers on two crashed jumbo aircraft in a hypothetical scenario. This practice exercise held valuable knowledge about how to support survivors and families of victims, and how to gather information while showing empathy.
“Terrorism was something we began to prepare for, while still being aware that multiple emergencies can occur concurrently.”
Among the many lives lost, some were friends and colleagues of Richard’s. He recounted how profoundly the loss was felt.
“The medical director’s son, Manny delValle, was a New York firefighter who was missing on 9/11, and who we found out later passed away,” he said.
In the hours after the attacks, government buildings were electively evacuated, and Boston was told to prepare for as many as 3,000 or more injured people. They ultimately did not receive any physically injured people.
“9/11 became personal to everyone,” he said.
Following his career with Boston EMS, Richard went on to serve as the 8th Deputy Administrator of FEMA, appointed by President Obama. He took what he learned from 9/11 with him.
Richard discussed the value of empowering survivors instead of treating them like victims, recalling that when he served as the volunteer chair of the board of the Massachusetts Red Cross after 9/11, other members of board included the daughter of the pilot of Flight 11, the wife of a passenger of Flight 11 and the pilot of the first fighter jet over NYC after the planes hit the towers.
9/11 didn’t just change how we treat survivors. It changed how hazards are addressed. Richard recounted that on the day of 9/11 the focus of the nation was on New York, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa., as we all were not sure where or what was next. Since then, the all-hazards approach has allowed emergency managers to not focus on just one type of disaster while overlooking others. Terrorism was something we began to prepare for, while still being aware that multiple emergencies can occur concurrently. Richard used the current example that the United States has been responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, California and Minnesota wildfires, Hurricane Ida, and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the United States’ intake of refugees from Afghanistan simultaneously. Emergency management has changed and needs to change and evolve even more going forward.
Another effect of the 9/11 attacks is that people became more aware of their surroundings, and the people around them. Response priorities shifted from protection of buildings and infrastructure to protection of people. Richard remembered people who lost their lives during the attacks, and responders who succumbed to cancer related to their service at Ground Zero in later years, celebrating the work they had done to save others.
“It’s easy to replace buildings, but you can not replace people,” Richard Serino said.
The level of preparedness and ability to respond to terrorist attacks was improved following 9/11. Organizations began to drill for terrorism attacks. The impact of this training was demonstrated during the Boston Marathon Bombing (2013), which was responded to faster than would have been expected pre-9/11 because they had drilled for it. Another important emergency management strategy that came after 9/11 was the meta-leadership concept. Meta leadership is a way to maintain connectivity. Leaders unite diverse organizations to achieve common goals and work with a shared purpose. This purpose guides the efforts across very different areas of crisis management, and prevents the formation of silos or “Cylinders of Excellence” (organizations or units that do not communicate with others). As times and disaster response become more complex, emergency management leaders must find ways to lead up, down, across and beyond as they understand themselves and the complex situation they are dealing with.
Richard issued a word of caution, saying that there was still no way to perfectly predict or respond to attacks like those carried out on September 11, 2001. Richard, who instructs at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, hopes to cultivate a culture of leaders who can draw from these past lessons, who are diverse, and who are able to unite to address the nation’s vulnerabilities. He sees emergency managers early in their careers who are eager to create change, and he encourages it. Richard briefly discussed ways that we can ensure vulnerable people don’t get left behind in any emergency event, briefly discussing the health equity issues exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We need to bring people together again,” he said. “The feeling after 9/11 brought people together, today we need that even more than before — as we do this we need to practice equity and diversity, especially within the practice and providing of emergency management.”
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