- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 25, 2002

D.C. firefighters who worked at the Pentagon on September 11 took issue yesterday with an Arlington County report criticizing them for "freelancing" on the scene.

The report, prepared by San Diego-based Titan Systems Corp. and released Tuesday, said D.C. firefighters self-deployed in greater numbers than requested and maintained a chain of command independent of the incident commander from Arlington County.

D.C. Fire and EMS spokesman Alan Etter said the department responded with equipment to deal with a four-alarm fire about 120 people and 40 vehicles. Arlington County requested a response about a third that size.

He said much of the equipment staged at the 14th Street Bridge and was deployed as needed.

"We only sent what they asked for," Mr. Etter said.

One high-ranking fire official who was on the scene said the District did respond with the requested amount of equipment and sent additional personnel and equipment only to relieve its first responders.

The official also said the D.C. department maintained a continuous presence at the incident commander's mobile command station throughout September 11.

"As far as operating under an independent command structure, the only thing we did was use our fire ground radio channels to communicate with people inside the building," he said, adding that the lack of interoperability between the D.C. department's radios and Arlington County Fire department's radios served as an advantage because the Arlington's radio frequencies were "oversaturated."

"As our units deployed into the building, it was always coordinated," the official said.

Firefighters say it is likely the issues in the report arose on Sept. 12, when D.C. fire department operations officers bickered among themselves about who was in charge at the scene and hastily pulled out of the fire ground operation.

An October memorandum from D.C. Battalion Chief Richard Sterne to Fire Chief Ronnie Few obtained by The Times details the event.

Chief Sterne wrote that the Arlington County incident commander told him late September 11 that a "critical military command post" inside the Pentagon was threatened and "it was imperative to national security that no smoke or fire enter this area."

The incident commander said he had no resources to guard the area and asked if the D.C. fire department could help. But, according to Chief Sterne's report, the D.C. communications department notified him it could not fulfill his requests.

The situation escalated when a superior officer, identified as Deputy Chief Mike Smith, confronted Chief Sterne about his decision to deploy firefighters to the spot.

"This superior officer asked me, 'Who do you think you are, escalating an incident we're trying to disengage from?'"

Chief Sterne wrote that Chief Smith threatened to relieve him if he did not pull D.C. firefighters out of the incident and let volunteers from Virginia handle the "fire watch."

"I was ordered to return the companies I had called as soon as possible and to have the D.C. Fire and EMS Department out of there by 1900 hours," Chief Sterne wrote. "The D.C. Fire and EMS Department was 'out of there,' as ordered, by 1900 hours."

Chief Sterne wrote that he felt "compelled to apologize to the Arlington chief." He said he believed the incident might have damaged good will generated among departments working at the Pentagon.

"I do not know if [Chief Smith] was acting on his own authority or on orders from his superiors. I do know that if an incident of similar scope occurs in the District of Columbia, despite any improvements in preparedness, we will be dependent on mutual-aid assistance, maybe from Arlington."

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