9/11 attacks inspired careers of service

James Schnitker, firefighter/EMT with The Villages Public Safety Department, was a fourth-grader when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks took place. The day’s events inspired him to become a firefighter.

James Schnitker was a fourth-grader in Campbell Hall, New York, on Sept. 11, 2001. His father, a Rockland County sheriff’s deputy, was called into New York City after the airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers. Now Schnitker is a firefighter with The Villages Public Safety Department, and he cites the tragic events of 9/11 for inspiring him to enter the career. Others have felt called to serve after 9/11, especially right after the attacks on New York City and the Pentagon. While many joined the military, first responder agencies also saw a spike in interest in the aftermath. Numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Fire Protection Association showed an increase in people working in law enforcement and the fire service, as well as an increase in volunteerism in the fire service, following 9/11. What happened that day is still inspiring people like Schnitker, although in lower numbers.

A Hero Inspired

Schnitker was in class at Goshen Intermediate School on 9/11 when the school went on lockdown. Students began to be pulled out of class and there was a general sense of panic among staff. That’s how he first knew something was wrong.

He wouldn’t find out more details until he arrived home following an early dismissal. Then he learned his father had been called into the city.

“As a kid in fourth grade, you just knew your father was down there and not really knowing if he was a part of it,” he said. “I remember being terrified.”

It was hard to get information about what was going on in the city. Schnitker doesn’t remember exactly when he saw his father next to know he was OK.

“It’s kind of fuzzy,” he said. “I want to say he might have come home the next day.”

The community where he lived was home to many who worked in the towers or for the New York City Fire Department.

One neighbor, Jay Jonas, was very involved with Schnitker’s Boy Scout troop. Jonas’s son was in Scouts with Schnitker and the two boys also played baseball together.

“He was around for a lot of my childhood,” Schnitker said.

Jonas was also the captain on FDNY Ladder 6 . He survived. Many of his company did not.

Many of the people in his life, including his father, inspired Schnitker to apply to the FDNY while he was in college. He was one of about 60,000 candidates to apply for roughly 1,000 positions. He was wait-listed somewhere around 32,000 despite scoring well on the tests.

He began to work as a volunteer EMT. His plan was to move to the Carolinas and work for a volunteer department until he found a spot in a career department. Then a friend of his moved to Central Florida for graduate school and asked if Schnitker wanted to come with him. He did.

He went to the Florida State Fire College, and when he graduated in 2017, he met VPSD division chiefs Bobby Ramage and Kara Watts. They were hiring new firefighters right away.

Now Schnitker has found a home in the department and in the fire service.

“Even if I couldn’t do it in New York, being able to metaphorically carry the torch from those who served before is the biggest thing for me,” he said.

Increase In Service

Schnitker’s story is not unique. Kevin Quinn, first vice chair of the National Volunteer Fire Council, a 44-year veteran and former fire chief with the Union Fire District in South Kingston, Rhode Island, was called in to duty that morning, but not to respond to the attack.

“We had a car fire,” he said. “I was driving and the officer on my engine got in and asked, ‘Did you see what happened in New York?’ We got back to the station and saw the second plane hit. We were just crushed. We knew that this was not going to end well for a lot of firefighters.”

Quinn saw a lot of people take interest in his volunteer department following 9/11.

“Tragedy has a way of bringing out the best in people, and for a couple of years, we had a lot more volunteers coming in,” he said.

A survey conducted by the NFPA showed the number of career firefighters increased by about 49,000 from 2000 to 2009, compared to an increase of about 26,000 during the previous decade. The number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S., which had been on the decline from 838,000 in 1995, increased from 784,700 in 2001 to a peak of 827,150 in 2008, then began to decline to below 2001 levels by 2017.

Some of the volunteers only served a short time. But others — about half by Quinn’s estimate — stayed on.

“Some of those are our officers now,” he said. “They developed well and just blossomed.”

While career firefighting has seen a steady increase of jobs taken by people like Schnitker, volunteerism has been on the decline.

More people began working in law enforcement after 9/11 too, although the increase wasn’t as dramatic as firefighters.

Numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show hiring in law enforcement had hit a plateau in the early 2000s. But, between 2003 and 2008, more than 50,000 officers were sworn in.

Some of the biggest gains in law enforcement jobs were on the federal side.

Paul Sireci, a past president of the Florida Police Chiefs Association and current law enforcement consultant, was the chief of police at the Memphis International Airport at the time.

After 9/11, there were big changes coming to airport security, he said. No longer did private companies hire private security firms, and he started seeing more federal air marshals in his airport.

“It became very important to share information across local, state and federal law enforcement,” he said.

Not all people getting into law enforcement were doing it as a career. While there is no national repository for statistics about volunteers in law enforcement, Ross Wolf, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida, who studies volunteer policing, said anecdotal evidence suggests police departments also saw an influx of volunteers.

“We know people tend to volunteer after an event like that,” he said. “We know that auxiliary policing in New York City definitely increased after 9/11.”

As with firefighting, however, interest in volunteering with law enforcement also has waned over time, Wolf said.

Quinn would like to see more interest in volunteering.

“Our volunteer numbers are down significantly and the need has not gone away,” he said. “Ultimately we need more people to volunteer.”

Wolf also hopes to see a renewed interest in volunteerism.

“We have the same types of people in law enforcement today that we had in New York back then,” he said. “We have people who would run into a burning building to rescue someone.”

Staff writer Phill Stuart can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5332, or phillip.stuart@thevillagesmedia.com.