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Former Head of Honolulu's Emergency Services Recalls High-Level of Preparedness Prior to 9/11

Firefighters work at Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Center attacks, on Sept. 11, 2001.
Mark Lennihan
Firefighters work at Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Center attacks, on Sept. 11, 2001.

Our dependence on air travel was sharply put into focus on 9/11. But did you know Hawaiʻi was one of two dozen U.S. cities that had an emergency management system in place that went from training drills to a real-world terrorist event?

Salvatore Lanzilotti was head of Honolulu Emergency Medical Services under then-mayor Jeremy Harris. This weekend’s 9/11 anniversary stirred his memory of Hawaiʻi's state of readiness to deal with a terrorist attack back then.

But it also set the framework to prepare for other potential disasters and biological attacks, and high-security events like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting of world leaders that was held in the islands. The threats are still out there and it stands to reason we keep our resiliency in check.

"We were physically and mentally prepared — and that was the thing that saved the day for us because we had been working on this for about four years," Lanzilotti said. "So we had written plans for a response to a terrorist attack and so we began to put those plans into place."

But how was it that Hawaiʻi was able to have this plan in place?

"Well President Clinton had Directive 39 in 1996 because we had had a series of events: the Atlantic Olympics bombing in '96, we had the Murrah Building in Oklahoma in '95, the sarin attack in Tokyo, we had a bomb in the parking garage at the World Trade Center in '93. So in the '90s, there was a lot of this activity, and that's not even talking about the stuff that was overseas," Lanzilotti told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

Lanzilotti was called to the civil defense operating center in the basement of the Frank Fasi Municipal Building on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Since that time, the city has worked on plans to respond to other threats like SARS and Anthrax.

Lanzilotti says early on, the city also had the first polymerase chain reaction (PCR) mobile laboratory, similar to what the military used. If PCR sounds familiar, PCR tests are the gold standard for COVID-19 testing.

While Hawaiʻi still has the capacity for mobile testing, the current director of Honolulu's EMS department Dr. Jim Ireland says the technology has advanced so much in 20 years that the units are much smaller, and are integrated in some of the EMS units. And the idea of field hospitals is part of our COVID preparedness, should the cases begin to overwhelm our hospitals.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Sept. 14, 2021.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at
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