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Out of tragedy of 9-11, fire services embarked on key changes

Volunteer Assistant Fire Chief Curtis Freeman of the Dickinson Fire Department shares his personal accounts of 9/11, seeing firsthand the effects that event unfolded for the fire service industry.

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Assistant Fire Chief Curtis Freeman is pictured at Station 1 of the Dickinson Fire Department, located in downtown Dickinson. Freeman noted in a Press sit-down interview how the fire service industry has drastically changed since the attacks on 9-11 in New York, including handing out patches to fellow firefighters that is now a past-time. (Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press)
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Walking up to one of the oldest buildings in the city of Dickinson, Fire Station 1 still bears the past-time look of the 1930s with its front facade and tall columns of brick standing juxtaposed to surrounding modern design. Yet, as one nears the front entrance and reaches for the door handle, it becomes obvious that despite its antiquated look on the outside, the inner workings of the facility is state of the art.

Since the attacks on 9-11, security has heightened in all industries and the fire service is no different. Before, the doors at Station 1 of the Dickinson Fire Department were usually open to the public and provided firefighters with a respite from the cleaning and training to interact with the public and even the customary exchange of patches with other fire departments as they visited the town. In a post-9/11 world, open doors and patch exchanges have become something the old timers will tell you, "a pre-9/11 world thing," as fear of impersonation becomes a real world concern in an age of terrorism.

Now, firefighters have turned to selling T-shirts or handing out challenge coins. Curtis Freeman noted that the “heightened feeling of safety” has influenced him now in his role as volunteer assistant fire chief.

“It made us more aware… We've been on lockdown a couple times where we've gotten word that there might be riots, so we keep the doors shut. The front door out here always used to be unlocked. It's locked now,” he said.

Freeman recalled the day of Sept. 11, 2001, as bizarre, and he questioned the initial reality of it all. At the time, he was a volunteer firefighter for the Dickinson Fire Department and working full-time at TMI. While working what seemed a typical Tuesday, Freeman overheard from someone that the Twin Towers had been attacked.

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Dickinson firefighter Jared Rhode conducts receipt inspections on Engine 3. (James B. Miller, Jr. / The Dickinson Press)

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The Dickinson Fire Department conducts ladder training with its 100-foot quint apparatus. (James B. Miller, Jr. / The Dickinson Press)

“It felt surreal to me but then to know that this was something that this was a profession that I was also involved in as a volunteer, and we do go into places that people are running out of and we knew that our brothers and sisters would do that. That's what they're called to do,” Freeman said. “(I was) angry that somebody would do that too (not only) on American soil, but that somebody would do that to our people — Americans — and to know that you’ve got brothers and sisters that are running in there, and now we’ve got people trapped and killed.”

Freeman had just joined the fire service industry in October of 2000, with less than a year under his belt.

“Being a new firefighter, one of the main things that really struck home to me was when you would watch news stories, and you could hear what we call our PASS (Personal Alert Safety System) devices — it's the alarm that goes off if we go down in a fire,” Freeman said. “... As they were airing those news stories, you could hear those in the background and just as I tell you today, I still get chills telling you But to hear those PASS devices going off, I know what that means; I know that that means there's firefighters down inside. That really hit home.”

Given that traumatic exposure is common among first responders, it is not uncommon for emergency workers, such as firefighters, to suffer from PTSD. According to a report from Very Well Mind, approximately 7-37% of firefighters meet the criteria for a current diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. Mental health awareness for first responders spurred from the devastating impacts 9-11 had on the fire service industry, Freeman added.

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“I think there's been more emphasis on it. As far as PTSD or even suicide in the lines of firefighters, law enforcement (and) military, but after 9-11, we saw some classes come out as far as Firefighter First-aid that really brought those issues to life,” Freeman said, adding, “In 2007, we started teaching the Courage to be Safe class, so that everyone goes home. That also stemmed off after 9-11 happened. They knew that we needed to start talking about our people coming home, and what we do if somebody would get killed in the line of duty and how we take care of, not only our other firefighters, but how we would take care of those families if something does happen.”

Freeman continued, “I would say that it… strengthened that brotherhood… (Though) I go to my main job and then I come here, I know that if anything would happen my brothers and sisters have my back. In the end, we're going to be there for each other. And I think that really made that hit home.”

As fire service brothers and sisters look out for one another, Freeman encouraged the community to likewise act like a team as we remember the fateful attacks 20 years removed.

Jackie Jahfetson is a graduate of Northern Michigan University whose journalism path began in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan as a freelancer for The Daily Mining Gazette. Her previous roles include editor-in-chief at The North Wind and reporter at The Mining Journal in Marquette, Mich. Raised on a dairy farm, she immediately knew Dickinson would be her first destination west as she focuses on gaining aptitude for ranch life, crop farming and everything agriculture. She covers hard news stories centered on government, fires, crime and education. When not fulfilling deadlines and attending city commission meetings, she is a budding musician and singer.
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