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Honoring first responders on the 20th anniversary of 9/11

September 9, 2021

Soon after the planes hit the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, Brad Morrell deployed from Utah to New York City as part of an urban search and rescue team.

Aboard the military airlift transporting rescuers, Brad remembers seeing otherwise empty skies except for the fighter jets escorting their plane. When they got to the fallen towers, the scene was unlike anything else he and his teammates had experienced.

In the initial days, cell service was non-existent, land-mobile radios were down, and repeaters to boost signals weren’t working. The only communications available to Brad and his team were two-way pagers they brought from Utah.

“We knew that comms was an issue. For the first few days, we couldn't talk from Ground Zero back to our base of operations,” said Brad who now serves as the FirstNet Authority’s Director of Network and Technology Operations.

“After a few days, we got some repeaters up. But communications at Ground Zero was essentially being done the old-fashioned way. It was just face-to-face or yelling across the way. It hampered operations for sure.”

The tragedies of September 11 revealed fundamental problems with communication systems then used by our nation’s first responders. Radios relied on by police, fire, and paramedics did not easily operate across different agencies. Land and mobile phone lines were overwhelmed by a high volume of calls. First responders struggled to communicate with each other.

At the FirstNet Authority, our story is indelibly linked to September 11, 2001. Our mission is to oversee a communications network – FirstNet – that was created in light of the events of 9/11 to give American first responders a reliable nationwide broadband network.

Bravery and selflessness of America’s first responders

Brad is one of tens of thousands of first responders from across the country who ran towards danger to aid their fellow Americans at the Twin Towers in New York City, the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and the plane crash in the fields of Pennsylvania. The fateful events of that day forever changed our nation – and called on the bravery and selflessness of first responders as they faced unimaginable challenges.

“9/11 was a national tragedy in every sense of the term, but it was also a moment for the nation to see our first responders,” said Darrin Jones, Executive Assistant Director of the FBI's Science and Technology Branch and member of the FirstNet Authority Board.

“It was something that very few people who lived through that time will forget, seeing people putting themselves at risk in a very selfless way to try and save others and to try to get to the bottom of everything that happened to prevent it from happening again.”

No greater job

The 9/11 Commission examined the circumstances of the attacks and issued a report in 2004 that recommended a nationwide network for public safety communications. First responders needed a way to communicate that was interoperable among different agencies, disciplines, and jurisdictions and that accommodated the ever-increasing use of data.

Billy Freeman, Senior Public Safety Advisor at the FirstNet Authority, said, “Talking about interoperability, the 9/11 Commission had the vision to realize that data was going to be a necessity for public safety. And that started the path to where we are today.”

Billy deployed to the Pentagon as part of an urban search and rescue task force. He went to his kids’ schools to say goodbye and then drove overnight from Memphis, Tennessee, getting to work as soon as he arrived the next morning. The team worked 12-hour shifts to help with rescue efforts and later turned to recovery efforts.

“It’s one of those events in a public safety person’s life that will be there forever with them. Regardless of whether you were there or not, it impacted you as a public safety person,” said Billy about the events of 9/11.

“We have a tough job and we do it because we love it. We get to help people. In my mind, there’s no greater job.”

Congress takes action

The events of 9/11 also led me to the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee, where I had an opportunity to be involved in developing solutions to address national public safety issues. The committee covered a wide range of topics related to the nation’s homeland security, and I was drawn to the benefits that public safety technology could bring to first responders and our communities. 

In the years after September 11, the public safety community worked diligently to urge Congress to pass legislation establishing a single network that would allow public safety agencies to communicate nationwide. The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act was signed into law in February 2012 and allocated $7 billion and 20 megahertz of broadband spectrum to establish a network for first responders and to create the FirstNet Authority. I’m proud to have worked with leaders in Congress and the public safety community moving the legislation for FirstNet forward. It is truly an honor to serve public safety every day at the FirstNet Authority.

A network for public safety, by public safety

Twenty years ago, the 9/11 terrorist attacks forever changed our nation – and set a new course for the way public safety communicates. Today, FirstNet gives first responders an interoperable network available nationwide for communicating every day and in every emergency.

First responders are at the heart of everything we do at the FirstNet Authority. FirstNet is a network built by first responders for first responders. FirstNet has supported public safety in almost every type of emergency or incident, from hurricanes, floods, and tornados to coping with and confronting the COVID-19 pandemic.

From our 2012 founding through today, the FirstNet Authority has collaborated with the public safety community to shape FirstNet to meet first responders’ unique communication needs. We continue to work hand-in-hand with the public safety community to innovate new communication capabilities and keep responders safe and communicating. The lives lost and the lives forever changed on September 11, 2001 are our reasons why. We will never forget.


Learn more about how FirstNet is transforming public safety communications — contact your local FirstNet Authority Public Safety Advisor and sign up for our discipline newsletters. Follow us on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and LinkedIn for the latest FirstNet Authority updates.

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