9/11 remembered: Sherman Emergency Management Coordinator on 9/11 recalls the day

Jerrie Whiteley
Herald Democrat
The South Tower of the World Trade Center collapses on 9/11
 collapse of the World Trade Center tower on 9/11/ 2001. Daily vigils were held at Washington Square for victims of the World Trade Center collapse. After three days it rained and the dust turned to pasty mud. It then became a recovery effort for the World Trade Center.

Tom Watt was at his desk at the city of Sherman on Sept. 11, 2001. As the city's emergency management coordinator and operations commander at the Sherman Police Department, the then captain was shocked when he learned about the attacks on the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

The coordinated event also included a planned attack on the Pentagon and White House.

"I got a call from wife," said Watt who is now the sheriff of Grayson County. "Obviously, I don't sit around and watch TV at work. So I got a call from my wife and she said, 'You need to turn your TV on.' I saw the same thing that everybody else saw."

Grayson County Sheriff Tom Watt

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Shocked as he was, Watt realized that he had had to remember that there was still a police department that needed running right here in Sherman.

"And as the operations commander and the emergency management coordinator, though nothing ever came to my mind that would lead me to believe that we had anything to worry about in Sherman, Texas, we made sure that all of the guys out on patrol knew what was going on." Watt said he wanted local emergency management to know so they could listen for more information on the radio and to give a heads up if they saw anything that looked strange going on locally.

Watt also made sure that all of the other personnel at the police department knew what was going on. 

"Again, we never really felt like we had anything to worry about in Sherman, Texas," Watt said recently about his memories of that day.

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His team got through that day by working together with other local leaders to watch over particularly sensitive locations in the area like the federal courthouse and local industries that had chemical stockpiles that might be targeted for use in a deadly manner.  

One the things that has struck him most about the changes after that fateful day, Watt said, has been the change in the way the federal authorities communicate with those at the state and lower levels. 

"Prior to 9/11, there was a wall between federal agencies and local agencies," Watt said. "I experienced it regularly. After 911, the wall came crashing down. We regularly attend FBI briefings in Dallas now. And when there is information to be put out, it is put out."

He cited as an example the insurrection on the US Capitol in Washington D.C. in January.

"I guess the run up to Jan. 6, we received information from FBI Dallas regularly about persons of concern, security issues that the federal agencies — all of them — were concerned about," he said. 

Watt is not sure that it is specifically because of 9/11, but the local chiefs of police in Grayson County have come to the realization that they are stronger when they all work together.

"There is that spirit of cooperation," he said. "Not only between county and all of those agencies but between those agencies as well. The spirit of cooperation is much stronger than it used to be."

Also not directly linked to 911, but something that has happened since then is that additional redundancies have been built into communication systems. 

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For instance, if a major computer issue took place at Grayson County, staff has the ability to route all radio and telephone traffic to another dispatch center. The county's dispatch center can talk to every fire department and law enforcement agency in the county and beyond, Watt said.

The back up capabilities they have now might have been a "lesson learned from 911" along with weather incidents that have knocked out communications. 

Emergency management and response teams continue to work toward being prepared for the next big thing whether that be a 9/11-type event or a mass-shooting incident. But instead of each individual law enforcement group working on its own, they work together.

The Grayson County Sheriff's Office is planning for a county-wide active shooter course for local agencies. Watt said when departments send people into the GCSO for that training, GCSO will patrol that agency's streets so area residents are still protected.

All of that will be done, he said, while they pray they never have occasion to use the newly-learned skills, but the time for just praying about it is over, he said.

A big help for increased communication has been Grayson County Emergency Management Coordinator Sarah Somers who Watt said was with Texoma Council of Governments in the Emergency Management Preparedness Office when he was the emergency management coordinator at Sherman. The pair have worked together for more than 20 years on emergency management.

"We pretty well know what each other is thinking, and if she starts to hear things from the state level that I haven't heard yet, I can guarantee that I will be hearing about it," he said. "And the same goes from this office to her. If there is an issue that comes up that I believe she can help with, I will go to her."

He said county's emergency management office was a tremendous help during the recent really cold weather that hit the area in February.

"She has been a tremendous asset to us during COVID-19 as well," he said. 

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