TERRE HAUTE —
Years before the terrorist attacks in 2001, Terre Haute resident Patrick R. Ralston was part of a national panel that would assess how the U.S. government could assist state and local responders in combating terrorism.
The panel was the Gilmore Commission, named after former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III, who chaired the group.
Before the collapse of the World Trade Center towers in New York City, Ralston began work on the congressional panel in 1999 and served through 2004.
At the time, Ralston was executive director of the Indiana State Emergency Management Agency, as well as executive director of the state’s Department of Fire and Building Services and Public Safety Training Institute.
In his first meeting, he sat next to Donald Rumsfeld, who later stepped down from the committee when appointed U.S. Secretary of Defense.
Close by to Ralston was William Reno, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general and former senior vice president of operations for the American Red Cross, and James Greenleaf, former FBI associate deputy for administration.
“I felt somewhat intimidated,” Ralston said. “I knew why I was there as it unfolded, as most of the folks on the panel did not have much of an idea of what happens at the state and local level,” Ralston said.
“I think in the infinite wisdom of Congress, they wanted a diverse group of people. They did not have the experience we had and we did not have the experience they had,” Ralston said of the congressional panel.
At first, the panel was to look at assessing domestic response capability, “how prepared the country really was,” Ralston said. “One thing that became very clear — before the Department of Homeland Security was created — was … that everybody was doing their own little thing and nobody was sharing information,” Ralston said.
After 9/11, Ralston said the work of the Gilmore Commission took a national front stage.
Its recommendation to create the Department of Homeland Security was among the initial measures implemented after the terrorist attacks. In addition, states received millions of dollars for new equipment for police and fire departments, Ralston said.
“I think when this commission was started, there were no big acts of terrorism. I think Congress did it to probably satisfy some people, but then we got taken real serious after 9/11. I don’t mean that they were not looking at the recommendations before, but after 9/11 it changed everything,” Ralston said.
“They extended the work of the commission for two years. Obviously they [Congress] felt that the information that we were putting out needed to be looked at. There were a lot of smart people on this commission, and I felt I did my part,” Ralston said.
“This commission really helped shape the preparedness of our country. I know it was a good thing,” he said.
Ralston said 148 of 164 recommendations from the Gilmore Commission have been implemented.
One recommendation that became ratified as a rule for the Transportation Security Administration in 2006 targeted air cargo security, Ralston said, with the TSA managing a database of “known shippers” which are vetted companies that ship cargo on passenger aircraft.
When the 9/11 attacks hit, Ralston said he recalls watching a televised report stating Raymond Downey, deputy chief and commander of special operations for the New York City Fire Department, had been killed in the line of duty while at the World Trade Center.
“It just sent some cold chills up my back,” Ralston said, “as I just had dinner with him” before 9/11. Downey had also been a member of the Gilmore Commission.
The South Tower of the World Trade Center had collapsed. Downey “went into the [North] tower. They were trying to get people out of that tower, knowing what would happen. He could have stayed out, but he went into that tower and perished along with a lot of other people. It was a sad thing for our committee.”
In addition to his work as Indiana SEMA executive director, Ralston previously served as director of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Today, Ralston serves as vice president for business and economic development government relations for First Financial Bank.
Ralston, a Democrat, is also a member of the Terre Haute City Council, representing District 2.