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Profile: Richard Ohlsen

Richard Ohlsen was a participant or observer in the following events:

Mike Dabney.Mike Dabney. [Source: FEMA]Personnel at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region II office at 26 Federal Plaza in New York are unable to communicate with the city’s emergency command center in World Trade Center Building 7 and so Richard Ohlsen, one of the office’s employees, is sent to the WTC site to liaise with officials there. Personnel in the FEMA office felt their building shake when the first hijacked plane crashed into the WTC, at 8:46 a.m. (see 8:46 a.m. September 11, 2001), but were initially unclear about what had happened. They were able, however, to see the second crash, at 9:03 a.m. (see 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001), through the windows. Apparently after that crash occurs, “communications almost instantly became a problem and compromised the ability of the Regional Operations Center [i.e. the office at 26 Federal Plaza] to operate,” Ohlsen will later recall. In particular, personnel there are unable to communicate with the city’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM), which has its emergency command center on the 23rd floor of WTC 7. Mike Dabney, the senior FEMA manager in the office, therefore instructs Ohlsen to go to WTC 7, which is within walking distance, and act as an on-site liaison with the OEM there. However, Ohlsen’s departure is delayed because his colleagues are unable to find a working radio or a satellite phone he can take with him. He consequently only heads out at around 9:59 a.m., when the South Tower of the WTC collapses (see 9:59 a.m. September 11, 2001). He will change his plans following the collapse and, instead of heading to WTC 7, go to the command post at the headquarters of the New York Police Department (see After 9:59 a.m. September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 3/16/2004 pdf file; Graff 2017, pp. 343-344)

Stephen DeBlasio.Stephen DeBlasio. [Source: Jocelyn Augustino / FEMA]The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) establishes a temporary headquarters from which to operate at Camp Kilmer, an Army base near Edison, New Jersey, in place of its office in Lower Manhattan. (9/11 Commission 3/15/2004 pdf file; Graff 2017, pp. 344) FEMA’s Region II office is at 26 Federal Plaza, several blocks north of the World Trade Center. After the second hijacked plane crashed into the WTC, at 9:03 a.m. (see 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001), communications there “almost instantly” became a problem and “compromised the ability” of the office to operate, according to Richard Ohlsen, one of the office’s employees (see (After 9:03 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Jackson 1/2002; 9/11 Commission 3/16/2004 pdf file) Perhaps due, at least partly, to this loss of communications, at some unspecified time a temporary Region II headquarters is subsequently set up away from the city. Arrangements to establish this temporary headquarters are made by Stephen DeBlasio, director of the Administration and Resource Planning Division for Region II. DeBlasio is currently away from New York, in the Virgin Islands for a conference. Immediately after being notified of the crashes at the WTC, he establishes communications from his location in the Virgin Islands. His “first order of business,” he will later recall, is then “to set up a site at Edison, New Jersey, as a temporary FEMA Region II headquarters.” This site is at Camp Kilmer, where FEMA has long maintained space. DeBlasio has 25 phone lines installed there, in addition to the four lines already in place at the site. He also initiates the setting up of a field disaster office at Camp Kilmer, which would be able to accommodate 1,000 people. (9/11 Commission 3/15/2004 pdf file; Graff 2017, pp. 344) FEMA’s Region II subsequently deploys members of its emergency response team to various locations, but most of the members go to the site in New Jersey, according to Marianne Jackson, FEMA’s federal coordinating officer. (Jackson 1/2002) The temporary headquarters at Camp Kilmer is apparently only in use for a relatively short time. After he leaves the Virgin Islands on the afternoon of September 12, DeBlasio will learn that FEMA’s operations for New York have been moved back to the Region II office at 26 Federal Plaza, even though communications there are still out. (9/11 Commission 3/15/2004 pdf file)

Jay Kopstein.Jay Kopstein. [Source: Jay Kopstein]Richard Ohlsen, an employee at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region II office in Lower Manhattan, goes to the headquarters of the New York Police Department (NYPD), but is initially denied entry into the building and, once inside, experiences various difficulties as he tries to respond to the terrorist attacks. Following the second crash at the World Trade Center, the FEMA office was unable to communicate with Office of Emergency Management personnel in WTC Building 7 and so Ohlsen was told to go to WTC 7 to act as a liaison there (see (After 9:03 a.m.) September 11, 2001). As he was on his way out, though, the South Tower of the WTC collapsed (see 9:59 a.m. September 11, 2001).
FEMA Employee Is Denied Entry into the Police Headquarters - Consequently, instead of going to the WTC site, Ohlsen heads to the command center at NYPD headquarters, at One Police Plaza. When he arrives at NYPD headquarters, however, officers refuse to let him in because they do not recognize his FEMA identification as being official. Fortunately, Jay Kopstein, an inspector with the NYPD who happens to be passing by, recognizes him and takes him up to the command center.
Employee Lacks Priority Access to the Phone Network - Ohlsen’s problems continue, however, after he arrives there. Ohlsen does not have with him a special GETS (Government Emergency Telecommunications Service) phone card, which gives government and emergency workers priority to make phone calls during a crisis. Consequently, when he wants to reach FEMA headquarters in Washington, DC, he has to contact it through the normal collect call procedures, even though this is a national emergency. And when he does get through, he is told that responsibility for dealing with the attacks in New York has been transferred to FEMA’s Region I office in Massachusetts, as part of the agency’s standard continuity of operations procedures, and so all requests are meant to go through there.
Officials Refuse to Open an Equipment Cache - Ohlsen also runs into difficulty when he asks for an equipment cache that contains personal protective gear and search and rescue equipment for New York City’s urban search and rescue team to be opened. He is incredulous when, in light of the current situation, officials with the New York City Fire Department, which maintains the cache, refuse his request, supposedly because no one from the federal government has authorized the use of the equipment. Ohlsen apparently persists and eventually gets the cache opened, since he will later describe this setback as “the first problem he was able to resolve” after arriving at the command center. (9/11 Commission 3/16/2004 pdf file; Graff 2017, pp. 343-344)

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