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County Takes Final Look At Sept. 11 Efforts

Communications problems hindered firefighters, but overall response was a success, report says.

JULY 24, 2002 -- At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Arlington officials presented the final report on the county’s response to the Sept. 11.

County firefighters and police were leaders in the response to the attack on the Pentagon, said County Manager Ron Carlee. But "in an emergency of this size, no response, no matter how remarkable, will ever be perfect," he said.

There were significant strengths also revealed in the review process, most important of which were strong links between Arlington's fire and police, and emergency services personnel in neighboring jurisdictions.

But the best efforts of firefighters from Arlington were sometimes hampered by a faulty communications system, and a poorly defined response system for emergency personnel not on duty at the time of the crash.

Those shortcomings, and others, are delineated in the After-Action Report on the County’s response to Sept. 11, released Tuesday. The report, funded by the U.S. Justice Department, details the extent of operations conducted at the Pentagon, by firefighters, police, the FBI, Defense Protective Services and county staff.

<b>THOSE PROBLEMS DID</b> not lead to a higher death toll on Sept. 11. But Arlington was also the beneficiary of a series of accidents that also helped support the response to the Pentagon.

There were extra personnel on duty at the county's Emergency Communications Center, the communications hub for fire, police and EMS units. Many county fire trucks and personnel were already on the road and near the Pentagon, heading for training or responding to a report of a fire in Rosslyn.

Perhaps most importantly, the lives of police and firefighters may have been saved, the report says, with the apparent passenger rebellion on United Airlines Flight 93, which may have prevented a second attack at the Pentagon.

County government has already acted to address some of the shortcomings revealed in the report, and will work locally and nationally to find solutions to others.

Arlington has budgeted some $16 million of federally appropriated funds to improve communication abilities between Arlington fire units, and to acquire new mobile command centers for both fire and police departments – a key shortcoming cited by the report.

In addition, the County Board increased funds for the fire department in this year's budget, to pay for more firefighters on duty at all times.

The county will also be replacing its emergency operations center, Carlee said Tuesday, and thoroughly updating the county's emergency plan before Sept. 11, 2002.

<b>STRONG RELATIONSHIPS,</b> the review said, were one of the primary advantages the Arlington fire department brought to the Pentagon: strong relationships with the command staff of neighboring fire departments, the FBI and DPS.

The ability to manage those relationships were the key to the successful response to the fire at the Pentagon, Fire Chief Ed Plaugher said. Fairfax, Alexandria, Loudoun and Prince William firefighters joined with their Arlington colleagues, and worked under the already established command of Arlington's Assistant Fire Chief James Schwarz.

The county also benefited from the cooperation of federal agencies, with FBI agents, DPS officers and military personnel at the Pentagon ceding command to Arlington's emergency personnel until the fire was extinguished.

"I knew both Eds [fire chief Plaugher and police chief Flynn] and Jim [Schwarz] well, before Sept. 11," said John Jester, acting chief of Defense Protective Services.

<b>BUT THERE WERE</b> also cooperation problems, especially with firefighters from the Washington, D.C. Fire Department. The DCFD brought more units than requested, and worked independently of Schwarz's command, causing confusion at the scene.

That's due in part to liability problems, Plaugher said - departments from Maryland and the District are subject to lawsuits from victims of a fire, or people injured in crashes with a truck, whereas Virginia departments are immune to such suits.

It's also due to a clash of cultures. Fire departments in the Virginia suburbs have ties through alumni from one department in command positions elsewhere.

Plaugher spent 25 years in the Fairfax fire department; Tom Hawkins, Alexandria's chief, spent 15 years as a member of Arlington's department; and Jack Brown, assistant chief in Loudoun, also worked in Fairfax’s fire department.

"Suburban departments look for who fits what they want to do," and hire officers to fit the bill, Plaugher said.

The DC Fire Department, on the other hand, prefers to recruit its officers from the ranks of DC firefighters – "like other large cities," Plaugher said.

In addition, there has been turbulence at the top of the DCFD over the last decade, making it hard for Plaugher to build a working relationship with any one DC Fire Chief. But he was trying to improve that, he said, and spent last time last week meeting with Adrian Thompson, DCFD acting chief.

Those problems didn’t exist between police departments, Police Chief Edward Flynn said, and he had built up a good relationship with Metropolitan Police Chief Charles Ramsey.

<b>MOST OF THE FINDINGS</b> in the report were not news to county officials, but one thing did offer some surprises. Many people, both emergency services personnel and the general public, came to the crash site on their own. It was an apparent advantage, a morale booster to fire personnel.

But it could also become an obstacle to efficient operations, Carlee said.

"The area that offered the most surprise was the outpouring from the community at large," he said.

"It’s hard to describe or acknowledge the response we got," said Assistant Fire Chief James Schwarz, the fire department’s commander of the Pentagon site. But "without a disciplined response from the police department, the fire department and the public at large, it’s hard to manage the incident effectively."

It’s also a difficult problem to solve, the report acknowledges. But it may be best addressed with improved communications within the fire and police departments.

But the report was intended mostly to provide guidance to other cities and counties, Carlee said, as they ensure that they are capable of responding to the possibility of future attacks.

"The people who responded to the Pentagon were the same people who respond every day," he said. "We put this together to benefit other police chiefs, fire chiefs and local governments around the country."

It was really an example of the county returning a favor. "Much of our emergency preparation has drawn from the lessons of Oklahoma City," Carlee said.

It’s crucial that other cities and counties around the country heed the lessons of the Pentagon, DPS chief Jester said. "The first lesson I learned from Sept. 11 is, don’t think it won’t happen on your watch. You’re setting yourself up for disaster."