Every anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks draws us together as a nation. We are united in shared sorrow for the 2,977 lives lost. We honor the heroism demonstrated on that day by civilians and first responders alike, and by our military during the many years of war that followed.  And as two decades have intervened, we think about what we’ve learned in the interim about first responder roles in a society that grows ever complicated and what kind of support we can provide to help them do their jobs. 

There’s sacred ground in New York City, at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, PA, lest some memories fade and lessons be forgotten. And there are memorials here in Massachusetts, to commemorate the lives lost both on the planes and in the buildings. While the scars of September 11 may be most stark in these places, the date has meaning in every city and town across the United States and the world, especially for first responders who stand ready every day to respond to situations known and unknown. Like the firefighters climbing the stairs of the North Tower on that fateful day, today’s first responders always put our lives first and answer danger with selfless courage.    

On Saturday, September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the attacks, I will be at Anna Maria College for a special tribute to the lives lost, to honor the heroism of our first responders and armed forces, and to remind today’s generation that history shapes the future. The College has a tradition of preparing students for community-focused service careers. In fact, I earned my Master in Criminal Justice from Anna Maria in 1990 and many other fire and police departments are led by Anna Maria alumni. It’s vital to have educated, ethical, and community-minded professionals in these roles because the issues faced by first responders are continually evolving and becoming more nuanced and complex. 

This September 11, given the current events in Afghanistan, our concerns naturally turn again to the threat of terrorism. In Massachusetts, we faced extremism directly and, for me, personally in 2013 when the Boston Marathon was attacked. Preparedness can never take a break and there’s no comfort in complacency. While the public sees how we respond to threats tactically, much of the work is in developing a strategy and strategy stems from education. A solid educational foundation is more important than ever given that so many of our challenges in 2021 extend beyond terrorism.

We see this now more than ever. For more than a year, first responders and essential workers of all stripes have been consumed with responding to the invisible COVID-19 virus. They have pivoted, innovated as data and knowledge evolved, and adjusted to a new normal while mourning the loss of more than 600,000 Americans, including many in these essential professions. It hasn’t been easy, but when we need our first responders, they are here for us. 

While the pandemic affected every aspect of life, it hasn’t slowed the fury of Mother Nature. Fire departments today encounter more intense and dangerous threats from fires, storms, earthquakes and floods. Understanding science is an essential part of their responses. Policing too is in the midst of change. Communities large and small face the ever-rising scourge of addiction and behavioral and mental health calls are on the rise. It’s estimated that at least 20 percent of police responses involve a mental health or substance use situation. A 911 response is always filled with unknowns. 

Whether it is fire, law enforcement, paramedics or business continuity, we need more educated, well-rounded professionals in these practices. Education is best way to remove bias, reduce aggression, and adapt to all forms of change. Circumstances and situations test our abilities, but education shapes us as men and women. It takes a genuine arts and science foundation to know how to reason soundly and think critically. Learning helps us to better understand social and cultural differences and to see strength in diversity. First responders today must not just be ready to answer the call, but understand the why and the how associated with the response. They must weigh the consequences of actions and rely on knowledge make good choices. 

Too often, September 11th is explained in black and white – there was an attack followed by a response. It’s much more of a learning opportunity involving everyday heroism, service, and common ground. Education is how we delve deeper and problem solve, so it is fitting to honor this anniversary on a college campus. When we apply lessons learned from history, respect science, speak with facts, and understand human differences, we are stronger and better as first responders and as a people. Education is the greatest investment we can make in ourselves to prepare for a challenging tomorrow. 

Edward F. Davis is President and CEO of The Edward Davis Company. He served as the Police Commissioner of the City of Boston from December 2006 until October 2013 and has been in law enforcement for 35 years.