Leadership Corner

September 11: Remember and reflect

September 11th, 2019 at 12:51PM
Portrait of Chief Vicki Christiansen in uniform.
Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen

As we remember the victims of 9/11, I find myself reflecting on how that tragic day changed not only America but also my family and me. It was a horrible and confusing time. I know each of us remembers where we were and what we were doing when we first heard the news. I remember the shock we felt as we watched those two planes hit the Twin Towers and saw the aftermath of the attack on the Pentagon and the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in a Pennsylvania field.

We revisited these tragedies in the days and weeks that followed as they played out in the news. I still feel profound sorrow for the 2,996 people killed in the attacks—for the injuries to more than 6,000—and for the later injuries and deaths of so many first responders.

September 11 is a day of mixed emotions for me, as I’m sure it is for you. As we share our sorrow, we can also feel pride in how we as Americans showed up that day. Our nation has a history of showing up in times of need, and 9/11 underscores our role in the world’s emergency response community. 

The Forest Service has long been part of that. Our interagency incident management teams played a critical role in responding to 9/11 at both the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Our teams provided months of support and training for responders. After those tragic events, our own well-tested systems for emergency response were adopted by agencies around the world.     

A 2017 article by Kerry Greene, a professional on our Fire and Aviation Management staff, gives some good context on the Forest Service’s role in shaping our nation’s disaster preparedness framework. I encourage you to read the article for yourself.

The first documented Forest Service response to a major disaster was the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, followed by our response to the Big Blowup of 1910 in the Northern Rockies. As Kerry’s article states, our modern disaster response began in 1970, when we worked with other agencies to develop the Incident Command System. The ICS allows multiple agencies to coordinate an effective emergency response within a common framework.

By 1980, the ICS had been successfully used on wildfires, and it was also recognized for its potential on other kinds of incidents, including floods, hazardous materials accidents, earthquakes, and aircraft crashes. After 9/11, a presidential directive called for “a single, comprehensive national incident management system.” The following year, the National Incident Management System (including the ICS) was adopted.

Today, the NIMS is used by U.S. government agencies to respond to emergencies and disasters, from wildfires raging in the West to hurricanes battering the Southeast. Through the NIMS, the Forest Service works with other federal, state, tribal, and local governments to prepare for, respond to, and recover from incidents of all kinds. In addition, our Law Enforcement and Investigations personnel work through an Emergency Support Function protocol to coordinate with other federal law enforcement agencies in meeting threats to public safety and security.

Since NIMS was adopted, Forest Service International Programs personnel have worked with our own ICS experts to help counterparts in other countries learn about NIMS and adapt it to their own circumstances. We have also offered direct support for emergency response, most recently to the government of Brazil in response to wildfires burning in the Amazon. Through the U.S. Agency for International Development, our IP Disaster Assistance Support Program is sending a six-person wildland fire investigation and suppression team to Brazil.

On 9/11, we have much to reflect on as we mourn those who perished in those horrific attacks. But we also have much to be thankful for. We can feel proud of how we responded, both as a nation and as an agency. I know I am proud of our agency’s service to our nation, especially on this National Day of Service and Remembrance. Service is a core value for the Forest Service, as the legacy of 9/11 shows for all to see through our history of emergency response.

On a personal note, September 11 is my wedding anniversary, so the attacks changed how my husband and I experience this milestone together. My husband is a retired fire chief, and wildland fire management has played a prominent role in my 37-year career, making first responders dear to both of us. So 9/11 is special to us on multiple levels. We remember those we lost, but we also remember all we have to celebrate together.

So please take some time today to remember the victims of 9/11. But you can also take pride in how we show up as Americans and how we show up in the Forest Service—how we have always showed up, through emergency response and so much more, on behalf of the people we serve. 

9/11 Foerst Service memorial
The 9/11 Pentagon Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, September 10, 2019. In 2002, Congress asked the USDA Forest Service to create the Living Memorial Project which uses the power of trees to bring people together and create a lasting, living memorial to the victims of 9/11. The trees in the Pentagon Memorial are a result of the Living Memorial Project. USDA Forest Service photo by Cecilio Ricardo.