How 9/11 changed the way police, firefighters and first responders do their jobs

The aftershocks of the 9/11 attacks are still felt today.

Husky burns pic
The Husky Energy refinery in Superior burns as seen in this aerial photo taken April 26, 2018. (Bob King / File / News Tribune)

The echoes of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have endured for 20 years, in policies, procedures and mindsets.

“Fire chiefs and mayors and city councilors and finance directors started focusing on how can we keep our responders safe because that stuff’s going to happen," said Superior Fire Chief Scott Gordon. "People are going to call 911, they’re going to respond, how can we make it safer to respond?"

It gave rise to the incident command system — a standardized approach to emergency response that puts all agencies on the same page. Multiple agency agreements and the push for interoperability between departments also came out of the response to the attacks.

“Prior to that, we had no way of talking to the Duluth Fire Department,” except in person or via landline phone, Gordon said.

Wisconsin and Minnesota were on different radio systems with no way to get each other’s frequencies, which was like trying to talk to an AM radio with an FM one.


RELATED: 9/11 attacks remembered in Superior Superior Fire Chief Scott Gordon: "I was 30, 31 years old. I knew the world would never be the same."

That interoperability and communication proved critical in the Husky Refinery fire, and is being used by the agencies that are coordinating the response to the Greenwood Fire. It allows myriad departments to work together as one entity.

“It’s unfortunate that this is still a dangerous job, but we are safer because of 9/11, because of those pieces that I mentioned, communication and interoperability and our ability to actually have a plan and talk about said plan,” Gordon said.

The Superior Police Department heightened security in the wake of 9/11, developing a list of high-priority sites within the city and requiring officers on each shift to visit the facilities a certain number of times. A routine was developed over time and officers continue to regularly check key infrastructure.

The refinery asked to hire off-duty police officers for added security in the days following 9/11. The department continues to get requests for off-duty security work, Superior Police Chief Nicholas Alexander said, something they didn’t do prior to the attack.

Police, firefighters and first responders — who ran in to help while others were running out — experienced a wave of public support.

“When I look back at my career in terms of public appreciation and respect, I mean, that was one of the high times. The profession carried a lot of support,” Alexander said. “When we look 20 years later now, the canvas is a little bit different.”

The attacks triggered an investment in equipment and training for law enforcement and fire departments through the federal Department of Homeland Security, which was established in 2002 in response to the 9/11 attacks.


In Superior, that included everything from boats to deal with water threats to tactical training and funding to hire additional firefighters.

New Superior Fire Chief Scott Gordon looks over new equipment that will go to all the firefighters in the department at the Superior Fire Department headquarters at 3326 Tower Avenue in Superior on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. Jed Carlson / File / Superior Telegram

“During that 20 years between then and now, we’ve acquired things like night vision goggles and just increased our capabilities to be able to respond to events,” Alexander said.

It has also led to an active and more visible community of young veterans who have served post-9/11, said Superior Mayor Jim Paine.

"That changed my life," he said.

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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As reported by Douglas County Circuit Court.
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