I had just returned from a brief lunch break and the large portable television at the other side of the office suddenly attracted my attention. It was always on just in case there was an important news update but there was no rolling news that you could get on this old machine. I was doing some work that I can’t remember and suddenly became inconsequential as the breaking news told of a plane hitting the World Trade Centre.
The day was September 11, 2001 and I was just a few weeks into a new job with Greater Manchester Police after moving into police communication a couple of years earlier. One of the main reasons I moved to Manchester was the chance to be involved with the Commonwealth Games in a year’s time. That afternoon, the shock, the fear, the distress is still as clear to me now 20 years later as it was in the weeks that followed.
There are some events and crises that are so huge they change life forever. This was one of those moments in time. Terrorism was now a feature of my thoughts. It was this moment that spurred me on to learn more and complete a Certificate in Terrorism Studies and to volunteer to work closely on counter terrorism work. Communication then as now always so critical to this issue.
I have been listening to hugely emotional personal stories of those who had been in and around the World Trade Centre that day 20 years ago. Every word brings tears to my eyes and I can feel the pain of those interviewees. Some of the comments feel very close to home and what I experienced after 22 May 2017. I heard one interview from a reporter who said in the days that followed people hugged, held hands and were genuinely supportive when they met again. In the days after the Arena a good police officer friend used to start all out catch ups with a hug, which I needed more than ever.
Today, I heard a woman who had been helped to escape talk about how she felt she could have done more. This was something that troubled me for years afterwards, surely I could have done more to help people. Her recollections of that day were as clear to her now two decades later. There are times I remember receiving the first call about the Arena, working through the night, putting out as much information as possible.
All these issues are covered in detail in Kjell Braatas’ book Managing the Human Dimension of Disasters which is a book that anyone involved in managing emergencies, disasters and crises should read. Crises are emotional, very emotional and this human element is the critical to the response. Now, I spend time talking about how people are the most important focus of any crisis communication, response and incident management. I think back to the events 20 years ago as the starting point for a change in my thinking that was galvanised just over four years ago.
On Saturday, I will take a moment to stop, remember and think about what more can be done to help anyone who is caught up in the crises, disasters and emergencies that lie ahead.