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The 9/11 terrorist attack is deemed to be the worst terrorist incident on American soil. On that fateful day, two California bound passenger planes were hijacked and hurtled into the north and south twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. About an hour and a half later, another seized plane crashed into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the US Department of Defense in Arlington, Virginia. As Russo (2011) observes, the disaster management efforts in the two crash sites were largely compromised by ineffective communications. Better interoperable communication systems have been put in place to address the breakdown of communication systems, and lack of cooperation between different agencies were significant communication challenges that hindered rescue operations.

The first communications problem experienced by the rescue teams was poor operability of communication between the various public safety agencies that responded to the disaster. According to Leydesdorff and Zawdie (2010), interoperability of communications is the ability of units across various agencies to exchange information with each other freely without hitches. Interoperability of communications is the main ingredient to cooperation between the different agencies that respond to a disaster. Within minutes of the attack, the first emergency response management teams arrived from the various agencies across the United States. However, these agencies were not able to effectively mitigate the disaster due to a communication breakdown between them. Sharp and Losavio (2011) confirm that there were more than 20 response units from different agencies, with the New York Police Department (NYPD), the Fire Department State of New York (FDNY), and the Port Authority being the major units. On the ground were units from the American Red Cross, the FBI, Interpol, and the U.S. military.[Need an essay writing service? Find help here.]

With all these units on site, efficient information exchange was necessary. The units had to communicate with each other regularly to ensure that their efforts were well coordinated and not replicative in nature. However, the efforts of these groups were immensely hampered by their inability to communicate with each other. The radio systems in use by the NYPD and the FDNY failed to facilitate inter-agency communications. This resulted in rivalry and lack of coordination that significantly thwarted the coordination of the rescue mission (Argenti, 2002).

The other major communications challenge faced during the 9/11 attack was a loss of access to major communication systems as a result of damage to infrastructure in the city. The plane crashes resulted in the total collapse of the World Trade complex. Roberts (2004) states that structures within a mile and half radius sustained damage and the ensuing debris field compromised communications across all systems with underground terminals and infrastructure in the surroundings.

The worst affected systems were the emergency communications systems for the city of New York. These systems were housed in the basement of New York Emergency Operations Center (NY-EOC) offices a few block from the WTC (Leydesdorff & Zawdie, 2010). Due to the large debris around the infrastructure, these systems were inaccessible. Their redundancy response systems that come with such systems were not useful for they were also compromised by the intensity of the catastrophe. Leydesdorff and Zawdie (2010) further claim that most redundancy communication systems are designed to respond in case of routine loss of communication and not catastrophic losses such as what happened during the 9/11.

The two communication challenges described above led to a third communication problem – a lack of means to communicate to the general public. Inadequate interagency communication and compromised emergency response communications made it almost impossible for the disaster response agencies to communicate to the public, both within and outside the disaster areas. According to Coombs and Holladay (1996), the public is an essential part of disaster mitigation and rescue systems. The public can either make the disaster response plans a total success or a complete failure.

In the case of the 9/11 attacks, and with the emergency communications systems down, there was no way for the response agencies to communicate to the people trapped in the tower buildings (Sharp & Losavio, 2011). Panic ensued, and more lives were lost. The agencies also found it difficult to communicate with the large mass of people that had gathered around the disaster zone. Ambulances, fire engines, and other crucial emergency response equipment found it difficult to access the site. The site became chaotic, and the disaster mitigation efforts were thwarted.

Another communication challenge during the 9/11 attacks was the withholding of crucial information by the agencies involved in the joint emergency response effort. Russo (2011) states that rivalry and power struggles between the NYPD, the FDNY, and Port Authority created tension and friction between these three agencies during the emergency response. The competition and power struggle that arose between the groups influenced them to withhold crucial information from each other.

Tactical communication errors between the US aviation and the military command center in Washington was also communication challenge that plagued the post 9/11 response efforts.  This miscommunication led to various tactical mistakes such as the military chasing the wrong plane on the assumption that hijackers were using it. This way, some of the perpetrators of the terrorist attack were able to get out of the country (Barthel, 2012).

Also, there was mass cellphone communication events that led to the total failure of public cell networks within New York. Within a span of two hours after the assault, the mobile phone traffic within New York City doubled. Sharp and Losavio (2011) note that the overload extended to major areas on the East Coast within five hours of the attack. People from other regions could not contact authorities in New York to confirm the fate of their loved ones. The situation caused public anxiety, further complicating the rescue and humanitarian efforts. Network connectivity efforts within the wider New York area were not resolved within the first week (Sharp & Losavio, 2011). TV communication channels which are an excellent public communication channel were also affected since several popular New York television stations had their signal transmission towers at the top of the north tower of the World Trade Center.

Implications of the Communications Challenges on Relief Efforts

The challenges witnessed during the 9/11 disaster response had both positive and adverse effects. On a positive note, these challenges kick-started the reform process for emergency management at the federal and state level. The improvements witnessed in the last one decade on ER planning and management can be partially associated with these challenges (Coombs, 2007).  The challenges were a wake-up call for authorities at the federal and state levels to remodel their disaster response plans and models. After the 9/11 attacks, most states have amended their ER policies and plans.[“Write my essay for me?” Get help here.]

On the flip side, the communication challenges had numerous detrimental effects on the rescue operations. Inadequate operability in communication systems led to massive loss of lives and further slowed down the response action (Russo, 2011). The plane crashes caused fires in the towers, but due to the debris and human congestion, firefighters had challenges accessing the area. Also, there were firefighters from different agencies, and due to the power struggles and uncoordinated activities, there was a replication of effort.

Poor coordination between the agencies as a result of rivalry between them led to delays in the evacuation efforts as well as the delivery of humanitarian help. Meier (2011) writes that during humanitarian crisis situations, the free exchange of information is essential as it hastens decision making to prevent escalation of the current situation. The withholding of information between agencies led to the loss of lives and worsened fatalities. Ambulances rushed people to already filled-up hospitals and also due to uncontrolled masses of individuals on the streets, they were slow in delivering their casualties to hospitals. Rescue efforts of people trapped in the debris were also compromised by inadequate communications between agencies (Russo, 2011). Conflicts and supremacy battles between agencies coupled with communication breakdown saw rescue operations halt for hours. It took the intervention of authorities to resolve the disputes between the agencies.

Anti-terrorism efforts were also significantly compromised by the communication challenges experienced in the post 9/11 period. The miscommunication between Pentagon, Washington, and various military command centers brought about much confusion. For instance, there were rumors of another plane that had been hijacked and was targeting an unknown destination (Barthel, 2012). Military jets were deployed to counter the plane, but it was never found. This affected humanitarian efforts by creating anxiety among those trapped in the towers. Some resulted to jumping from the story building, consequently dying instantly. As Barthel (2012) further writes, sound command systems that enhance the flow of information from authorities are crucial to the success of disaster response efforts.

Mitigation Actions and Strategies

The New York state disaster response plan is not to blame for the hitches that were experienced in response to the catastrophe. Similar glitches would have been experienced even if the attack had occurred in another city. The emergency communications systems would have been overwhelmed, confusion would have arisen, and rescue efforts would have been compromised (Russo, 2011). The challenges experienced in the wake of the 9/11 attacks was a wake-up call for cities and states to improve their disaster response strategies and plans. Several remedies and action strategies could greatly help cities in the bid to mitigate the effects of disastrous or catastrophic events.

The first mitigation strategy should be the development of partnerships between public and private agencies involved in disaster response (Auzzir, Haigh, & Amaratunga, 2014). This approach will enable cities, states, and the federal government to overcome the greatest drawback in emergency response, which is the lack of cooperation between agencies. Before thinking of deploying interoperable communication systems, states they should try and enhance cooperation and partnership between the various agencies involved in disaster mitigation and response efforts. Interoperable systems would be useless if conflicts are to arise between organizations.

The partnerships will create a platform for agencies to jointly participate in the decision-making in the event of a disaster. This will help resolve the fear in different agencies that they will have limited access and influence over various ER systems. Sharp and Losavio (2011) state that if the agencies had worked together, the rescue efforts would have been more efficient. It will help resolve the initial first responder confusion that was witnessed after 9/11 since agencies will be aware of their specific roles and action plans.

The second action should be the implementation of interoperable communication systems at the city, state, and federal levels. The primary reason why the 9/11 disaster response effort was largely ineffective was a lack of a profound information sharing platform between agencies. After the incidence, Motorola Solutions (2007) developed special radios that could be used to effectively solve the interagency communication challenges through the use of gateways and switches. These systems have been deployed in various cities. Effective interoperable communications between agencies minimize chances of tension and conflict between agencies. Humanitarian assistance and disaster response thrives best in such an environment.

The other strategy that can be used to mitigate the communication challenges that were encountered during 9/11 response would be the diversification of the channels that can be used to relay communication to various parties in cases of emergencies. New York was almost in total darkness after the attack compromised the public cell network and the TV broadcast. In the event of a disaster such as a terrorist attack, there is a possibility that computer systems, television, and mobile networks may fail. During the 9/11 crisis, some managers resorted to the use of unusual communication methods to reach their employees. According to Argenti (2002), mass media channels such as emergency radio broadcast systems can be used to communicate to masses in case telephone and TV communication systems fail. The internet can also be exploited in such communication scenarios.

Modern technologies can also go a long way towards alleviating communication challenges in times of disasters. Mobile phones have become common, and they are also more accessible to people compared to fixed line telephone systems. Mass mobile notification technologies can be used to communicate with masses in case of emergencies (Meier, 2011). Though such technology is limited regarding the size of text it can send, it has numerous advantages over one way telephone broadcast systems. Such technologies are a forward step towards the use of mobile phones in emergency situationsThe other action that is necessary to bolster disaster mitigation strategies in the future and reduce the chances of the reoccurrence of the communication breakdown that was witnessed after 9/11 would be the development of training systems for the disaster response personnel and the ordinary citizens. Firefighters, social workers, nurses, communications staff, and other parties who play a crucial part during disasters need to be trained on potential hazards of the twenty-first century. According to the University of California, Santa Cruz Fire Department (2016), most of the training curriculum for these vital groups of response personnel have not been trained on threats such as terrorism. The skills that some of these personnel possess are thus not consistent with the potential disasters of the twenty-first century. These syllabi should be reviewed and updated to ensure that the staff acquire skills that are relevant for the 21st century.

Members of the general public should also be trained on how to mitigate contemporary disasters that they are likely to encounter in their daily lives. Such training is commonly referred to as Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training (University of California, Santa Cruz Fire Department, 2016). Today’s  citizens are observant and tech savvy, and as such, disaster response can be revolutionized. The public should be trained on how to identify potential disasters and how to respond to them. Training will enhance the cooperation between the response teams and members of the general public.

There is a need for response teams to be equipped with the latest technology to empower them to deal better with disasters. The highly operable Motorola radio systems can be deployed to various departments to enhance communication (Motorola Solutions, 2007). Ambulances can also be fitted with computer aided deployment systems to facilitate effectiveness in the transfer of hostages. ER departments in cities should also be equipped with choppers and digital analytics devices to enhance prediction of disasters.[Click Essay Writer to order your essay]

In conclusion, the response by various agencies to the 9/11 terrorist attack disaster was wanting. Communication challenges linked to inadequate interoperability and infrastructural breakdown compromised the coordination of different agencies in responding to the catastrophe. It slowed relief efforts and sparked conflicts between the concerned agencies. In order to prevent the recurrence of such challenges in the future, there is a need for deployment of modern interoperable communication systems.


Argenti, P. A. (2002). Crisis Communication: Lessons from 9/11. Harvard Business Review80(12), 103-109.

Auzzir, Z. A., Haigh, R. P., & Amaratunga, D. (2014). Public-private partnerships (PPP) in disaster management in developing countries: A conceptual framework. Procedia Economics and Finance18, 807-814
Barthel, B. A. (2012). 9/11 ten years after: Command, control, communications remain an issue(Master’s Thesis). United States Army War College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Coombs, W. T. (2007). Ongoing crisis communication (2nd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications.
Coombs, W. T., & Holladay, S. J. (1996). Communication and attributions in a crisis: An experimental study in crisis communication. Journal of Public Relations Research8(4), 279-295.

Leydesdorff, L. & Zawdie, G. (2010). The triple helix perspective of innovation systems. Technology Analysis & Strategic Management22(7).

Meier, P. (2011). New information technologies and their impact on the humanitarian sector. International Review of the Red Cross93(884), 1239-1263.

Motorola Solutions. (2007). Enabling multi-agency communications through the use of IP gateways/switches [White paper].
Roberts, J. (2004, May 18). Communication breakdown on 9/11.

Russo, C. (2011, September 9). Emergency communication remains a challenge ten years after 9/11.
Sharp, K. M., & Losavio, K. (2011, September 6). 9/11, 10 years later: Interoperability & other lessons learned from 9/11.

University of California, Santa Cruz Fire Department. (2016). Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) Training. Retrieved 21 November 2016, from

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By Hanna Robinson

Hanna has won numerous writing awards. She specializes in academic writing, copywriting, business plans and resumes. After graduating from the Comosun College's journalism program, she went on to work at community newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada, before embarking on her freelancing journey.

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