As the second plane flew into the World Trade Center, it was obvious to the members of the New York City Fire Department that the organization was overstrained from the onset. A single incident overburdened one of the world’s largest and finest fire services. The magnitude of the situation was unimaginable. Two magnificent skyscrapers were in flames, with dual infernos raging from more than a thousand feet above the ground. For this emergency scene, there wasn’t a fire department big enough to get the amount of water needed to extinguish the flames. The density of the city limited the amount of apparatus that could get within even blocks of the twin towers. On that fateful day, one could have tripled the size of the FDNY, quadrupled the water pressure, sent a fleet of air attack planes, and you still wouldn’t have enough manpower, space, or apparatus. The responders did their best, they saved thousands while sacrificing hundreds of their own. September 11, 2001 was a tragic anomaly.
Within the emergency services and public safety professions, it’s imperative that we learn from tragedy so that when faced with the next catastrophe we can be better. When it comes to the 9/11 incident we learned about emergency communication pitfalls, command-and-control issues, staging, and on-scene risk analysis just to name a few. However, one thing that this coronavirus pandemic seems to be spotlighting is our lack of understanding that some things cannot be fully prepared for purely out of magnitude. For example, at the time of this writing, the State of New York needs more than 30,000 patient ventilators because of COVID-19, and that number is going up by the day. This situation is heartbreaking, and this is just one US State. Tragedies by definition overrun systems, they create loss, and perpetuate suffering. So, then the question that needs to be asked is, what about COVID-20? How many will they need then; moreover, how many nurses and doctors will COVID-20 call for?
When Greenleaf talks of stillness, it is in that stillness where we gain perspective. It’s in that moment of quiet reflection, isolated, when one realizes that tragedy exposes fragility. When one is vulnerable they desire to feel safe. They want comfort. When people feel unsafe, they become agitated, angry – irrational. They start to point fingers, why wasn’t this done? Those who strive to make us safe and healthy do their best, many work till they collapse. We have seen this before when those engaged in battle make the ultimate sacrifice. In today’s fight against a virus, this unfortunately will also be the case. They will do their best and some will give their all. They knowingly – heroically – accept this.
Ironically, these same servants fighting on the frontlines are the ones that asked us to do things like get a flu shot, eat healthy, stop smoking, exercise, have a 72h kit, clear dead brush from around our houses, or replace the batteries in smoke detectors. These servants have been trying to save us from ourselves in times of calmness, yet we only seem to pay attention during calamities. They do this because they have the foresight to know that catastrophes will happen, and when they do, they overload the system. Sadly, a vast majority ignores even these minor personal responsibilities that would make them feel less fragile, better yet, empowered. Moreover, these small actions both reduce the impact of disasters, and serve some of the needs of those who serve.
The dirty little secret about mass-scale disasters is you can’t plan enough, you can’t stockpile enough, and you can’t get the majority of citizens to prepare. By simply looking at the past, the next anomaly will be bigger than anyone can imagine. Soon a vaccine will be developed and COVID-19 will go into the history books with the likes of 9/11, the Spanish Flu, the Chicago Fires, and SARS. It will leave in its wake a path of destruction. The professionals understand this, and they will go on doing the best they can with what they have into the foreseeable future. To be servants to them we must listen and act. Because when it comes to tragedies, you can’t build a fire department big enough.
Eric J. Russell