The American flag outside Fire Engine Co. 11 at 3420 14th St. NW was flying at half-staff yesterday morning when D.C. Fire Chief Theodore Coleman drove by on his way to work.

A short time later, Coleman ordered the flag raised to full staff.

Firefighters at the station house said they had lowered the flag as a simple tribute to three fallen comrades, killed fighting a blaze Monday night in a Baltimore County furniture store.

Coleman countered that he is the only person who can authorize firehouse flags lowered, and that he had not done so.

By late yesterday, the incident had flared into a confrontation between Coleman and rank-and-file firefighters at the station house.

Reached at his home last night, Coleman said "there seems to be a determination among some members of the department not to follow the rules and regulations."

Fire department regulations "spell out specifically how we fly the flag," Coleman said, and they are to be followed unless he orders differently. "There would have been no problem" flying the flag at half-staff if the firehouse had cleared it with him first, he said.

But "when individuals take it upon themselves" to make such decisions, Coleman said, "it is a disgusting and outrageous defiance of the rules and regulations of the D.C. fire department."

Firefighters at the station, who acknowledged that they lowered the flag without being ordered to do so, said they did it because they believed it was an "appropriate display of sympathy."

"Whether it was by the book or not, I thought it showed our respect for the fallen firefighters," said one fireman who asked that he not be identified. "Perhaps it was a mistake. We didn't even give it any thought when we put it up."

Coleman has ordered that all flags fly at half-staff today in honor of the dead firemen.