0
Votes

Lessons Learned

Area police and fire workers look back on Sept. 11.

"Number 32. That's my boy," said a proud James "J.T." Harrison, captain of Engine Company 39 in Reston. Harrison was pointing to his 13-year-old son, James II, who was playing in recent football practice at Old Redskins Park in Chantilly. Decked out in a New York Yankees jersey, Harrison said he, "wouldn't miss this practice for the world."

The number one change in the fire department in Fairfax County since Sept. 11 is its emphasis on families, Harrison, a married father of two, said.

Since 9/11, Harrison, like many public safety officers around the country, has found more time for his family. "We know when we leave home each morning, there is a chance we are not coming back to our families," he said. "I just hope and pray I can be as lucky and blessed next time, because I know there are a whole lot of firefighters who don't have a next time."

Harrison said he and his children have become closer by going through this national tragedy together. "The more you are aware that dad or mom might not come home, the closer you are going to get to them and vice versa," he said with one eye zeroed in on the field. "I certainly worry about my family a little more now when they go on the Metro or they take a road trip."

<b>IN THE YEAR</b> since terrorist attacks in Virginia, New York and Pennsylvania killed more than 3,000 people, Americans have treated police officers and firefighters as heroes for their bravery and courage. While the 12 months since last Sept. 11 have been unprecedented in this country's history, police and fire officials in Herndon and Reston insist their job's have not changed all that much, only the public perception of them.

"We have always known what we do. You and those closest to you know what we do," said Harrison. "The accolades that we care about come, and have always come, from our brothers and sisters; Sept. 11 didn't change that. We know when we have done a good job."

While he says firefighters have not sought public attention because of Sept 11, Harrison is nonetheless flattered and overwhelmed by the public's embrace of firefighters in Northern Virginia and around the county. In the weeks after the attacks, Harrison said people from Reston and Herndon brought warm meals, homemade cookies and handmade thank-you cards. "The sheer volume of stuff has dramatically tapered off," Harrison said. "That is not a bad thing. It means we are starting to return to normal."

<b>IN HERNDON</b>, Police Chief Toussaint Summers believes his town has already returned to a state of normalcy. "Things are back to normal from a police standpoint," the chief said. "We are always prepared for emergencies — big or small — and the unexpected. So to get back to normal is part of our job. It is what is expected of us."

Lt. George Diaz has been with Company 4 in Herndon for four years, and has been in the ranks for 11 more. In those 15 years, he has never seen such an outpouring of emotion. "People with tears in their eyes dropped by the house and said, 'God bless you,'" Diaz said, "That really makes you feel good.

"The community has just been incredible," Diaz said. "Herndon is a great neighborhood, it has become noticeably more aware, and security conscious since last September, and that is a good thing."

While communities have rallied around police and fire officials, families have tightened ranks, Harrison said. Most of the families are supportive, but the children do worry, he said. "They smell the clothes, they see our faces. Kids aren't dumb," he said. "We try to shield them from as much as we can, but we can't do it all. To be honest, they are always a little more aware than you thought."

Diaz, too, has seen a return to family among his fellow firefighters.

Harrison says his son, James, has, on occasion, wondered aloud, about why his dad doesn't try another job. "Then he sees the way his buddies look at me in my boots or helmet and, once again," the senior James said, "then all of a sudden, he becomes very proud."

"Not a day goes by that I don't think of it and realize it could have been any one of us because it showed how precious life and having a family is," Diaz said. "My family worries, I know, but they are very proud of the kind of work I chose and they know I wouldn't be anything else in the whole world."

<b>A LONGTIME ADVOCATE</b> of community policing since his days in Prince William County, Summers, like Diaz, says he has seen a noticeable increase in public awareness. "People are looking more suspicious at things they once might have taken for granted," Summers explained. "National Night Out was a great example of community and police partnership. We have always had great enthusiasm, but this year's" response was noticeably increased.

Summers said his department did not see too many donations or gifts from his community following the tragedies of last year. "In the town of Herndon, the community has always been very supportive of the police," he said. "We enjoy a great relationship, great respect and great partnership with our community. Herndon has always looked up to their police department, so, to be quite honest, I didn't notice the change."

Until 9/11, some public safety officers may have failed to understand the gravity of their daily jobs. A warm and sunny September morning last year changed that thinking. Diaz, who was not on duty last Sept. 11, was working as an interpreter at the Fairfax County courthouse when he first heard the news about the World Trade Center. "With only six or seven guys per shift, our house is a smaller and leaner than most," Diaz said. "We can't help but look out for one another."

Harrison agreed saying his own feeling of invulnerability was lost when Flight 77 hit the Pentagon. Harrison, who has captained the station's 'B' shift, at the Reston Avenue firehouse since late last August, said he felt less secure and he believes it only a matter of when, and not if, the next attacks will occur. If Sept. 11 taught the fire department anything, Harrison said, it is that stations need to work together and train together. Some have criticized the chaotic nature of the rescue efforts at the Pentagon.

<b>SEPT. 11 WAS A WAKE-UP CALL</b> for police and fire departments around the country and for community policing, Summers said. "Before Sept. 11, most people didn't think anything like this could happen in America," Summers said. "Since 9/11, we now know to be prepared for the ultimate unexpected event."

Chief Summers does not think the overall urgency of his officers has changed. "From the outside, it might appear that way because 9/11 really drove home to a lot of people outside of law enforcement that, 'hey, these guys really do put their life on the line. Hey, these guys really do rush into danger,'" Summers said. "That is what we are trained to do and that is what we have always done. Rushing into the World Trade Center is no different from rushing into a domestic case. You don't know what is going to happen when you get there. We are sworn to protect and serve and sometimes when you protect and serve, you lose your life."

Harrison believes the urgency level has been raised, but he added in agreement with Summers: "the urgency to save a life is pretty constant."

In the days, weeks and months since Sept. 11, Lt. Diaz, who is also a paramedic, has noticed that many of the fire station calls are medical emergencies. Diaz says that many people are suffering from depression and anxiety and coping with stress from the events of 9/11. But what about the firefighters themselves? The stress level for his station, and all fire stations, has always been high-stressed, he said. "It's a job where we can go from a deep sleep in the middle of the night to a full-force call within seconds," the Herndon lieutenant said. "So we are used to stress and no sleep."