Can You Take It?

As I stand in an office high above the streets, looking out the window on a beautiful sunlit day, I recall another beautiful September day, but in New York City.  As I write this, the twelfth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are on my mind. As I look out my window, the deaths of sixty New York City and Port Authority Police, and three-hundred forty three fire fighters seem to fill the sky.

Along with those four hundred deaths, Leonard Hatton, an FBI agent, was killed. John O’Neill, the head of security for the World Trade Center was also killed. He was the former head of the FBI’s New York Field Office. John O’Neill had a reputation of being a superb project manager, with a sharp and tough mind. But that’s not on my mind as I look out on the beautiful day. No clouds in the sky. Just like 9/11/2001. Crisp. Clear.

What’s on my mind is what goes on inside a building during a massive evacuation and rescue operation, such as that at the World Trade Center. It’s a scene we don’t like to picture, because it is not pleasant.  But it is a scene that John O’Neill practiced in his mind many times. It’s a scene that Leonard Hatton, a bomb technician, had thought through many times as well. Then I thought to myself, “Can you take it?”

Many people in the security field used to be in pretty good shape. But many of us find ourselves working most at desks, with forms and papers and writing to do, meetings to attend, and so on. Without our work, the front line employees cannot do their job. People are unprotected without the unseen work of our hands and minds. But what happens when a major disaster strikes? We know that our hearts and minds will call us to help save lives. But…”Can you take it?”

Imagine a fire, with massive amounts of flames and smoke. The fire alarms are making a deafening noise. Fire sprinkler systems are spreading torrents of water on tile floors, which are slick in the best of circumstances. Lots of people are yelling directions on what to do, where to go, and so on. And virtually everyone has an adrenaline dump on their system, which is the body’s normal reaction to a life threatening event. Adrenaline is wonderful, because it gives us a real boost. But it has a strong downside in that we often develop “tunnel vision” and diminished hearing, so that our brains don’t have to deal with information overload, and they can think more clearly. The body seems to know that there will be a lot of screaming and yelling.

Continue to imagine. Let the “movie” play in your mind. As people move, they get cut on jagged metal and broken glass. Now blood is mixed with water. It flows into the emergency exits making stairwells slick. People fall. Panic may overtake the crowds.  And there is you. And me. I want to think that we stand as solid pillars of calm in the raging sea. But…”Can you take it?”

Am I physically fit enough to go up dozens of levels of stairs? Can I carry hoses? Can I carry equipment? Can I carry myself? Or will I become a victim that needs rescue also? Am I able to physically help others out of the building? Can I save their lives? Can I make it down the stairs with someone even just holding on to me for support, not to mention can I carry them? I don’t need to look like Sylvester Stallone, but I do need to be fit. People depend on me in ways that I hope I’m able to meet.

Am I physically prepared for other health issues? Just recently another dozen names of firefighters were added to the memorial of lives lost in 9/11. These brave men and women succumbed to diseases contracted during the rescue operations in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. They survived the first rescue, but were felled due to diseases. Could the diseases have been prevented through vaccinations and protective gear? I frankly don’t know. But I know that informal surveys of my friends and colleagues have produced indications of very poor levels of protection against common diseases such as tetanus among police and firefighters and security personnel. I know I’m taking steps to upgrade my protection, and encourage all of my colleagues to do the same.

As these thoughts play across my mind, I’ve decided that I need to save this article, and get it mailed. Then I’m going to the gym. I gotta get ready for the day that I hope never occurs.