When Disaster Strikes: Duty First - Then Remembrance and Reflection

There are catastrophic events in the history of almost every nation that transcend the normal routine of everyday life and leave a lasting mark on the agencies and individuals responding. The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 are an obvious example because they transformed both the cities attacked and the response communities involved. They also changed American society as a whole – there is now a bright dividing line in most people’s memories of their country before 9/11 and after 9/11.

Fortunately, one-time events in which numerous responders lose their lives are rare, but responder agencies should have a plan in place, ahead of time, for dealing with such events when they do happen.

The first priority in these situations should be to take care of the immediate incident at the time, focusing primarily if not exclusively on the saving of lives – until that is no longer possible. Staff members will not mentally stand down while there is unfinished business still to be dealt with. In fact, the Fire Department of New York (FDNY)  maintained a rescue and EMS (emergency medical services) presence at the site of the World Trade Center site for many, many months after the terrorist attacks.

A Time to Mourn, and a Time for Closure 

Maintaining that presence allowed members of the agency – even those who were not in position to respond to the initial incident – to participate in concluding the city’s response successfully, making it a true triumph over disaster. One cannot mourn indefinitely and continue to function as a healthy human being; however, deciding what is or should be the “appropriate” time frame is not something that an agency per se can do, because closure is such a personal matter that it can be set only by the individuals directly involved.

However, the agency still must continue to function, even during the mourning period. On 9/11 itself, the FDNY EMS Command responded to thousands of other calls for assistance that were not related to the attacks on the World Trade Center. The same was true on 9/12 and 9/13 and every day thereafter – continuing up to the present. The agency cannot stop doing its job following the loss of a member – or even a large number of members.

The agency involved in such a situation probably will not be functioning normally, though. It usually will have at least two additional tasks, of exceptional importance, to carry out: responding to the specific incident in which a member died; and coping at the same time with the department’s own response to the death. In addition, it should be remembered, staffing will be decreased by a number equal to those who are no longer able to respond.

Twilight Rites for Fallen Heroes 

It also is important, for practical as well as personal reasons, to provide and maintain – always – the dignity and respect owed a hero. This is what was done during the long gray twilight period after the 9/11 attacks. Every time, day or night, that a responder’s remains were discovered at the World Trade Center site, those remains were escorted, by a team of other responders – first to an always waiting transport vehicle, and then away from the WTC site. Following that dignified process provided the surviving responders the opportunity needed to give their former colleagues a comforting last measure of respect.

The public funeral of a responder who dies in the line of duty is no small undertaking, and the agency’s response should be organized and scheduled with that in mind – to the maximum degree possible. However, it also is important to recognize that the decedent’s family, not the department, is and should be the primary focus of the funeral. The family has lost a son, a daughter, a wife or husband, a mother or a father – and it is therefore the family’s wishes that must take precedence.

Framing the department’s response to a funeral as something that the department can offer to the decedent’s family – rather than something that alleviates the grief of the department itself and its individual members – will help keep this priority in focus.

So the operational rule is to memorialize the loss and the person or persons who have been lost. Many agencies dedicate buildings, special rooms, or even vehicles to their fallen heroes. In some larger agencies, or agencies of any size that have suffered a large number of losses, this cannot always be done. Which is why some larger or older agencies that have suffered many losses over the decades often have in place, at a central point in headquarters or close by, a memorial plaque with the names and information about the loss inscribed. In FDNY this memorial – which had to be expanded to accommodate the losses from 9/11 – is enshrined in the lobby of fire headquarters; in Philadelphia a similar memorial plaque is in that city’s Fire Museum.

Such memorials to the fallen not only provide an additional final measure of respect, but also give survivors, successors, and future visitors a place of reverence to visit. And to reflect.


A Personal Note from the Author to the Readers: If you have never experienced a line-of-duty death, it is the author’s sincere hope that you never will. If you have, it is the author’s equally sincere hope that you have reached some degree of solace.

Joseph Cahill
Joseph Cahill

Joseph Cahill is the director of medicolegal investigations for the Massachusetts Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. He previously served as exercise and training coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and as emergency planner in the Westchester County (N.Y.) Office of Emergency Management. He also served for five years as citywide advanced life support (ALS) coordinator for the FDNY – Bureau of EMS. Before that, he was the department’s Division 6 ALS coordinator, covering the South Bronx and Harlem. He also served on the faculty of the Westchester County Community College’s paramedic program and has been a frequent guest lecturer for the U.S. Secret Service, the FDNY EMS Academy, and Montefiore Hospital.



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