As Jacksonville Fire and Rescue chief Ray Alfred awaited possible requests for assistance from New York City and Washington, D.C., Wednesday, the dubious distinction hit home that all three cities were among the 27 metropolitan areas that were first designated by federal authorities as likely terrorist targets several years ago.
The distinction brought welcomed federal monies to the city for special training to combat potential terrorists acts, but it also brought with it the realization that a city with two major naval bases within its borders could likely be on terrorists’ target lists around the world.
The training of Jacksonville’s 1,100 fire and rescue workers and many more health and law enforcement employees, makes the city a likely source of aid to even two of the most well-prepared metropolises in the world.
Especially when the best of one of those city’s fire and rescue personnel were killed during the event.
Alfred said that while all 1,100 of his personnel received awareness training of terrorist acts, he said 104 have had extensive education in specialized areas, such as chemical and biological emergencies and confined and trench rescue, an area of specialization that could be in high demand as both northern cities dig feverishly for survivors.
On the darker side, he said, Jacksonville also has specialists in running makeshift morgues and in identification of bodies. Given fears of the potential death count in both cities, these specialists will be in great need.“But understand this,” said Alfred. “As trained as New York was, they couldn’t prevent this. Now, our training will go into how you rescue victims from that aftermath. From all that steel. How do you get people out of there?”
Alfred admitted being in the first group of 27 cities selected for special terrorist training is unnerving, especially now. “We’ve been asking ever since, ‘Well, how did you select these 27 cities?’” he said. Federal officials, however, have never answered that question. “I guess you look that Jacksonville at the time had three military installations which could have been targets of any terrorist ... I suppose when they look at Jacksonville that was one of the factors, but we don’t know, we were never told. So, we accepted it and went on about the business of getting ourselves prepared.
The designation meant $1.4 million in federal money for disaster training, Alfred said. Beyond that, he said, little else was said. The city was given no possible scenarios or factors to deal with.“It was sort of up to us to look at Jacksonville and just think: what are the vulnerable areas here? Nobody else can do that but us, here.” And, while a lot of thought has gone into such events, Alfred said the city has nothing resembling an anti-terrorism handbook with which to deal with such situations. For one thing, he said, you could never cover every possible situation.
“There’s no rationale to this,” he said. “These guys are terrorists.” But, as in New York, he said, certain things happen after certain things happen. He noted that the southern part of the city was shut down, air traffic halted, and bridges and tunnels closed. Alfred said the most amazing thing he’s heard about the disaster is that a firefighter who made his way up to the 82nd floor of the one of the towers actually “rode it all the way down and survived.” As for the 200 to 300 firefighters who didn’t survive, Alfred said, unfortunately, that’s part of the job.
“As much training as we may have, you don’t know how fast this thing is going to unfold,” he said. “So, you take your chances that you can get in, get everybody out put the fire out before. I suspect even if they knew they only had an hour or 45 minutes ... some of these guys probably still would have gone in and tried to rescue as many people as they could. It’s part of what we do. This, for instance, happens almost everyday throughout the country. In regular three story apartment buildings, single-story houses, where you know that there’s quite a bit of fire, but you also know that there’s this mother standing on the side screaming about her child that’s trapped inside. And so you’re job is to get in there, without regard for your own life, to try to get in there and get them out.”
Alfred said that no matter how much officials warn rescuers to be sensible in such situations, many times emotion gets the better of them. “Now we try to say to our folks, now use some common sense ... but even that is hard to tell our folks who are very aggressive in trying save people’s lives and property,” he said. “You do it, you don’t think about it. You go in and you do the job as best you can. You save as many people as you can, and sometimes you lose your life in doing that.” When he heard about the firefighter on the 82nd floor, Alfred said, it gave him hope.
“When you heard that a person was on the 82nd floor and rode that mass of steel and concrete all the way down and survived, you can only say, whether you believe in God or not, ‘God is good.’ It’s a miracle when you look at all of that devastation. and it gives you hope that there are people within some air pockets that may be still alive.” Asked about this extremely complicated form of terrorism as compared to something seemingly easier, such as the gas attack on Tokyo several years ago — one of the events that prompted the 27 city terrorist designation — Alfred was considerably less talkative.
“I’m obviously not a terrorist and don’t know what they think or what motivates them,” said Alfred. “These are questions I don’t think anybody has an answer to. None of this makes sense. It’s a different culture. The questions is: Why can’t people sit down and talk these things out? I don’t think any one person has an answer for that.”
He did say Jacksonville’s special training included chemical, biological and nuclear warfare. “Sort of the weapons of mass destruction training.” The City has purchased special suits for “a chemical spill or act perpetrated on us. And then biological tools. We’re still in the process of getting a lot more tools and appliances in order to deal with any incident of weapons of mass destruction.”
As an example of such an occurrence, Alfred said, “If we had a chemical spill, where people were contaminated with chemicals, the first thing we’d have to do is mask up ourselves, get in special suits, and then have to decontaminate people before we sent them to the hospital. Because once they got into the hospital, if they weren’t, then they would contaminate the whole hospital.”
But for as many more tools and millions of dollars that New York CIty has, Alfred said, none of it could have prevented this tragedy. Jacksonville would be no different.