08 Jun The First Response Against the Unknown
My Experience after 9/11 with South Florida’s BEST First Responders
Immediately out of college I was extremely fortunate and found a job that I enjoyed a lot. It didn’t pay much, to be a scientist, but to me that was OK. I was happy with a small yet steady income. Plus I loved being an analytical chemist and microbiologist. It was mentally compelling and I felt like I was doing something positive that the world benefited from.
On September 11th, 2001, I was working in the lab industry.
The destruction of the Twin Towers and the damage at the Pentagon dominate the imagery and memory of these events still. Less remembered is the bio-terror scare that occurred at the same time, the Anthrax event. While many people were afraid of being in tall buildings, or being in airplanes, people like me were instead more afraid of Anthrax.
I went to High School and college in Boca Raton.
Boca Raton was the headquarters of the National Enquirer, a newspaper that was sent Anthrax. A photographer whose office was there was the recipient. He died. The local post office distribution facility had to be shut down and cleaned three times before it was free from Anthrax spores. It was a very freaky time to be a microbiologist in South Florida.
Anthrax freaked me out.
I called the Broward Sheriff’s Office, one day where my anxiety about Anthrax had peaked. I offered my expertise and explained how I had experience with testing chemical and biological toxins. I suggested some specific things the Sheriff’s office could look out for and do. The Sheriff was nice to me and listened. I didn’t expect anything more from the conversation.
The BEST Project
About a week after that, the Sheriff’s office called me back. They invited me to listen to a proposition at the Sheriff’s HQ. The Fire Chief explained how they were forming a new team, that would later be called BEST, in order to provide local high level information and opinion to first responders dealing with disasters of all kinds. They asked me if I wanted to join. I couldn’t refuse.
Both my grandfathers were fire fighters. The idea of rushing into danger when everyone else freezes is in my blood. It’s made me do reckless things that are pretty frightening to reflect and dwell on, when stranger’s lives were threatened. You can train a person to be a first responder, but you can’t train them to WANT to be a first responder. It has to be a “battle urge” in your blood.
I looked around. I didn’t expect anyone else to rush into danger against the unknown for me. None of my neighbors or friends or co-workers seemed up to the task, or even motivated to try. You couldn’t stop me from doing it.
We started by going to the BEST meetings every Saturday morning. Some days we’d just discuss things, one of us would present or raise a question or issue. We all got to know each other. There were officials from the coroner’s office, from the county health department, architects and engineers employed by or contracted by the county. There was even a guy there who had claimed to be a “terrorist expert who was stationed inside other countries”.
Some folks had backgrounds that were pretty scary. South Florida is the last stop into the jungle for many, the tip of the USA closest to foreign places that have been battlegrounds and likely will be again. We needed scary folks because we expected scary things were going to happen here. Many of the 9/11 terrorists lived in Broward right before the event. We had good reason to feel especially vulnerable, locally.
I explained my expertise to the other members as “someone who tested drinking water, out of public water plants, for harmful toxins.” My experience testing water and soil, with a type of chemical analysis device called a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer, gave me unique abilities to identify chemical and biological unknowns. They needed someone who could “tricorder” so to speak, so having me made the team more able and complete.
However, some of the other members didn’t like to hear the level of detail I was interested in, just because everything took time, and they thought I asked stupid questions. They were worried about buildings. I was worried about bio terror and chemical weapons. They had what kept them up at night. I had what kept me up at night.
Shortly thereafter I leveraged my lab and computer programming experience to obtain a position with a laboratory software vendor in Hollywood, FL. The job seemed to be custom made for me I was super-lucky because I had recently bought a home only blocks from the offices.
I didn’t list my experience with the BEST team as a credential for my that new role – although I probably could have benefited from it. I saw my participation in the team at the time as something I had to keep somewhat “protected”.
I brought the new job up to them, the other members of the team, but it was inconsequential except for some personal kudos. We were busy every Saturday morning, planning, thinking about what we’d do to protect the people of Broward County if they needed us for the rarest of “black swan events” where the SWAT and HAZMAT teams aren’t enough and needed to be coordinated, needed to be protected against things that couldn’t be drilled against.
That volunteer role involved learning all the tactics and tools of first responders, first hand, so we could envision how they’d respond to events. This meant wearing the same gear the hazmat teams have, experiencing what their experience is. Wearing the gear isn’t easy. Facing the unknown is scary, especially when you learn over and over how easy it is to make mistakes that can kill people, make mistakes where you, in the training, die. I learned I could only take about half an hour in the hazmat gear before my blood pressure got too high, and I’d have to cycle out or hurt myself. I’ve gotten healthier since. That was eye opening.
Addressing the Nation’s Weaknesses and Local Weaknesses
The job I did during the week involved implementing laboratory software at some of our country’s top labs, including the CDC and state level central public health laboratories. Doing those two things in parallel, at the same time in my career, was a great experience. My eyes were opened to so many things. My involvement with the Broward Sheriff’s Office, as a volunteer, did not interfere with my getting clearance to work on Federal information system design. Nor should it have. I’m unaware how it had an impact on my getting cleared to work on Federal or State level projects, or if it was ever considered at all.
Do We Have a Similar Thing Here?
After leaving that software company, headquartered in Hollywood, I moved back to Boca Raton and out of Broward County. So my involvement in that initiative ceased. I never pursued joining or forming a similar team in Palm Beach County or Boca Raton. I had a new family and new business and the distance from 9/11 grew every day, so I didn’t want to put time into that like I used to. I didn’t feel as much “in danger”.
Recent events, how government officials have reacted, and how the public has been chronically misinformed along the way, have made me re-consider our preparedness, not just as “experts” but the preparedness of the public as a whole. We are not resilient towards being misinformed.
It’s important for me to point out WHY we all agreed to show up every Saturday. Public officials like the health officer, the coroner, the fire chief, architects and engineers all volunteered their time, like me, over and above the hours they put into their jobs. They weren’t forced to be there. I wasn’t forced to be there by anything more than my will to keep my neighbors safe. It was a privilege to be invited and to have a job where I didn’t have to work weekends, and I could afford to go. We all showed up and were serious about it for a long time.
But why? Why did BEST exist?
Why did we put that time into BEST? Why did we feel needed?
Because we just watched the Twin Towers fall. We just watched the Pentagon on fire. We saw people in our area die from a bioterror attack. We were worried it would happen to Fort Lauderdale, to Miami and to the communities of South Florida. They were with us, living with us, and we didn’t know. Boca got anthraxed. We weren’t immune. We felt we were in the crosshairs.
But most importantly we knew, ourselves, that if we wanted to save lives, we had to do it ourselves. The State wasn’t going to come save us. The Federal government wasn’t going to save us. Neither of them are equipped to on the timetable first responders deal with. We knew that when it came to getting information from either of those two sources, Federal or State, we weren’t always going to get what we needed to save the most lives. They had different limits than we had, and we had different abilities they’d never have, just by virtue of having boots here, always, on the ground.
The BEST acronym stood for Broward Emergency Support Team.
We were dedicated to it because we knew that when we needed it the most, nobody would come save us. We had to inform ourselves, we had to protect ourselves, and we had to expect what comes from the outside of the community isn’t always going to have the community’s best interests as priorities. We did it because we didn’t trust, we knew we couldn’t trust, anyone else like we trusted our neighbors who were also protecting their families, in the same community as ours, against the unknown.
Appeal to Authority is Cringe
When people use their authority or experiences to bolster their arguments it always indicates to me that their argument is weak. So I avoid doing that. It’s a logical fallacy to appeal to authority. I prefer to listen to the science, not the scientists. So please don’t think I’m toting some credential out as a way to argue you should listen to me. I don’t feel comfortable recommending that to you. It’s not helpful.
For the same reasons I feel wrong about appealing to my own “credentials/experience/authority” I also feel that it’s wrong to trust other “authorities” when it comes to their assertion of what some “accepted science” should be. Getting a license, getting a degree, getting elected or appointed to some high level office, some position of authority, doesn’t mean their science shouldn’t be questioned, debated.
The BEST people in Broward got together because we knew the only people we could trust, to take care of us, was ourselves. We couldn’t expect anyone else to tell us the truth when we asked for it. We had to answer for ourselves. We got together on the premise, that when disaster stuck, when we reached out for directions, for guidance, for the information we needed, we had to plan for being lied to by the people who were above us. We knew we might die, a lot of us, if we trusted “higher authorities” completely.
I just assumed all Sheriff’s departments and Fire Departments around the country were doing the same thing – staying cynical and providing for the likely case of being misinformed by political appointees. I didn’t realize how far ahead of the curve we were, or how much lack of such a thing could cripple the nation as a whole.
The Old “Don’t Listen to Me”
I’m not telling you, my neighbors who read this, that you need to listen to me by virtue of my authority or experiences. I’m telling you this because the question needs to be answered by each of us. It’s a question I can’t answer alone.
I know many of my neighbors don’t appreciate my delivery, the way I make my points. I don’t plead for people’s attention for things I believe they should notice. So often my communication style is abrupt, and purposefully abrasive. I often cross the line and end up getting thrown out of groups, or get blocked on social media. I make memes that are intended to trigger people’s cognitive dissonance and use the same tactics I employ as a marketer to make people think about things they don’t want to.
I know that if I was more graceful and polite, a better dresser and a more patient listener, I’d have what it takes to run for office and make change from within the system. But that’s not me. I don’t have that.
I know that the consequence of being how I am, means many people won’t listen to me at all. I get excited about talking about this stuff to people and I drive them away. My family is tired of hearing it.
So don’t listen to me. It’s not a popular thing to do.
Instead be responsible on your own.
Ask the critical questions to yourself ABOUT responsibility.
The question is:
When are we going to do that in the same spirit here, to be sovereign of body and mind, and to know the public well-being begins and ends with us, with our personal responsibility? When will the doctors and lawyers and business professionals join hands and lead together, starting here, instead of following others who aren’t here? When will we learn that nobody else has as much of as stake in taking care of us as much as we do?
It’s so fundamental. But why did we lose sight of that?
When did we get into the habit of not trusting our neighbors , not trusting ourselves, trusting distant people over local ones?
Who are we? Do we believe in ourselves for real?
Or did we put “gods” before us?