The Arlington County fire department's emergency response to the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, was "mainly a success," overcoming inherent complications that arise when numerous local, state and federal jurisdictions are involved, according to a report released yesterday by the commission investigating the terrorist attacks.
The county's fire department, the lead agency overseeing the massive operation -- simultaneously a plane crash, a fire and a partial building collapse -- benefited from having a formalized management structure, or Incident Command System, in place when terrorists slammed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon's west wall, the report stated.
"On any other day, the disaster at the Pentagon would be remembered as a singular challenge, an extraordinary national story," the report stated. "Yet the calamity at the World Trade Center included catastrophic damage 1,000 feet above the ground that instantly imperiled tens of thousands of people. Nonetheless, broader lessons in integrating multi-agency response efforts are apparent in analyzing the Pentagon response."
The success in Arlington can also be traced to strong, professional relationships and trust previously established among emergency workers responding from across the Washington area, as well as the pursuit of a regional approach to response, the report said.
Arlington County Manager Ron Carlee said the commission report reaffirms the findings of an independent federal review released last year. The after-action report also concluded that Arlington fire officials worked well with other agencies, and together they handled the aftermath of the attack successfully.
"We worked very hard as an emergency team and not as individual, separate departments," said Carlee, who added that preparation for the possible millennium computer glitch on Dec. 31, 1999 -- known as Y2K -- helped lay the foundation for jurisdictions working together.
"Y2K helped with the whole contingency planning," he said. "We practiced it in another context."
While it was harshly critical of the emergency response by New York fire and police officials when the World Trade Center was attacked, the commission report illuminated the major differences in the two attacks, stating that the "two experiences are not comparable."
The report said that in New York, the problem had less to do with "turf battles" and "more to do with command systems designed to work independently."
Arlington County Fire Chief Edward P. Plaugher, who received national praise for his role overseeing the fire and rescue operation, said the findings reflected the long-running procedures of the region.
"We have built on strong relationships with our neighbors," said Plaugher, who is retiring next month. "And we're continuing to reaffirm those relationships."
The commission report cited serious problems with communications equipment as one major flaw during the response to the Pentagon attack, a criticism also raised in the after-action report. Cell phones were of little value, and radio channels were initially saturated, according to the report, which said pagers were most reliable. All that has changed, Plaugher said.
"The entire region has bought into the same system -- we can all talk to each other," he said.