The morning of Sept. 11 began as a typical mid-September morning for the members of Platoon 3 of the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department (DCFEMS). As the members went through their platoon-change inspections of apparatus, gear, radios and personnel, they had no idea that they would soon play a role in history.
A department with a four-platoon system of manning protects the District of Columbia. A deputy fire chief who has overall responsibilities for the city during the assigned 24-hour period of duty commands each platoon. Six geographic battalions are led by a battalion fire chief and aide. There are 33 engine companies staffed with an officer and three firefighters, except six of the engines are paramedic/engines, which carry an additional paramedic. Sixteen truck/ladder companies are staffed with an officer and four firefighters. The three heavy rescue companies have an officer and four firefighters. The three fireboats each are manned with an officer, pilot, engineer and four firefighters. The EMS system is staffed at different levels during various times of the day with a full complement of 35 units compromised of advanced life support (ALS) and basic life support (BLS). A crew of two staffs each of these. The chief of the department is supported by a staff of three assistant chiefs who head the bureaus of Operations, Services and EMS. There are deputy fire chiefs for Training, Facilities, Risk Management, Standards and Fleet Maintenance.
On Sept. 11, the Fire Communications Center dispatched units for a reported plane into the White House at 9:46 A.M. Normally, four engines, two trucks, one heavy rescue and a battalion chief respond on structures. Because of the occupant at the White House, the response is increased by an additional battalion chief and the deputy chief. On this tour that person was Deputy Chief Rogers Massey. This alarm, however, came in as a plane crash with collapse, so the cave-in task force consisting of Rescue 3, Battalion Chief 3, Engine 15 and the Haz-Mat Task Force was also dispatched.
While the units were enroute, the true nature of the call became clear and an additional alarm of four engines, two trucks, one heavy rescue, a battalion chief and the Foam Unit Task Force, which comes with two crash trucks and support vehicles, responded to the Pentagon at 9:48. The White House incident was investigated. After receiving intelligence reports from the FBI, Special Operations Battalion Chief Michael Sellito made the decision to continue holding units for commitment should additional attacks occur to the White House or the Capitol. He staged the cave-in task force and Haz Mat Task Force at a company close to the buildings, but far enough away as not to be targets themselves.
At 10:01, a second alarm was struck at the Pentagon for additional DCFEMS units to respond. This brought an additional four engines, two trucks, Reserve Rescue 3, two fireboats, Battalion Chief John Thuman and Deputy Chief James Martin/Facilities, who assumed command of the DCFEMS units and personnel.
The District of Columbia and its surrounding jurisdictions all participate in a joint mutual aid plan under the auspices of the Council of Governments (COG), and the FIRESCOPE method of incident command as taught at the National Fire Academy is employed. Because the area is so rich in federal resources, the time it takes for any incident to become a unified command scenario is probably less than the time it took for you to get to work this morning. The Pentagon is located in Arlington, VA, and therefore they were incident command for this entire operation. DCFEMS set up a command post next to the vehicle being used by Arlington.
Fire Chief Ronnie Few quickly assessed the situation and made the order to recall all off-duty personnel and for mutual aid companies to begin coming into the city for back filling stations. He and his staff began prioritizing the hundreds of target hazard buildings in the city and began to deploy resources to the general proximity of those regions. The city went into an area command structure and off-duty chiefs came into their assigned regions and implemented the incident command system positions. Deputy Chief Beatrice Rudder reported to the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), where she stayed until the next morning.
A citywide operations center was established at the office of the deputy fire chief and began contacting the EOC for buses to transport personnel. Meanwhile, Deputy Chief George MacDuffie and EMS Deputy Chief Lillian Carter established a rehab center at the DC Convention Center. Units of the DC National Guard brought bedding and food, and provided security. Doctors, contacted through the disaster plan, reported to provide the fire and EMS personnel with blood pressure and other medical checks.
At 1 P.M., a third alarm was struck for the Pentagon. At this time DCFEMS had 15 engines, six truck companies, four heavy rescues (one reserve), four deputy chiefs, five battalion chiefs, two fireboats and all of the available special operations units. A total of nine EMS units had also been committed. Off-duty personnel had been arriving back at their stations. Few made the command decision to dispatch mutual aid companies from neighboring Montgomery and Prince Georges counties in Maryland. This included two battalion chiefs from those areas. These units responded under the command of Battalion Chief John Harney.
At this time, Deputy Chief Michael L. Smith/FFD-4 responded to the Pentagon and relieved Deputy Chief James Martin. Seeing the need for an expanded incident command system structure, Smith assigned Battalion Chief Herelihy to Operations in direct concert with his Arlington counterpart. Battalion Chief Pat Johnson became Planning & Logistics with assistance from the aide Sergeant Rusty Anderson. Martin had set up three Division Commands and these remained in place.
The problems originally encountered by first-arriving units continued. These included operating inside of a structure heavily charged with fire and smoke encompassing five stories and five rings, or corridors. The area directly affected by the impact had already collapsed making the structural integrity always a concern.
By 5 P.M., personnel began arriving by bus from the various commands for relief. These reliefs occurred by alarm position for position to assist with accountability. Level three accountability had been instituted where all personnel accountability tags were retained at the command post and division chiefs received lists of personnel coming to them with unit assignments already determined. At 9 P.M., Deputy Chief William FitzGerald/FFD-2 relieved Smith for the overnight operations. For this period, no interior operations were permitted for safety.
By 7 A.M. on Sept. 12, most visible fire had been extinguished. The main problem continued to be the roof structure. This was an interesting truck challenge. The roof deck is concrete but it has a wooden structure built of 2X6s, framed into a gable, with a slate roof and horsehair insulation. This configuration continued around the building. The slate prevented water from above and the concrete prevented operations from below. Battalion Chief Richard Sterne attacked this problem and solved it by cutting two trench cuts at either end of the affected "wedge." Units remained on the scene until 7 P.M. on Sept. 12, when they demobilized and the DCFEMS returned to normal operations with all off-duty personnel being relieved from duty and the mutual aid companies returning to service. Smith advised the fire chief that all was secure by 7:30.
The District of Columbia has demonstrations by some group or another every week. The crowds can range from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands. This fact contributed very much to the successful operation by the DCFEMS. The IMF/World Bank had been scheduled to arrive during the weekend of Sept. 28-30 with demonstrations permitted for before and after those dates. Sellito and Captain Henry Lyles, EMS/Special Ops, had been setting up a plan to operate during these demonstrations. Elements of the plan involving logistics, planning and finance were utilized heavily during the Pentagon incident.
This article is not an endorsement for the DCFEMS. Too much pain and loss has occurred in our great city of New York and especially our brothers of FDNY to allow for cheering. Rather, this is a testament to the men and women of the DCFEMS who, despite knowing the horrific events unfolding in New York City and the Pentagon, still returned to duty when called and performed admirably. Their courage on the lines and their professionalism displayed at all times made their mark in the long and proud history of the DCFEMS. The Arlington, VA, Fire Department and its leaders deserve special recognition for their handling of the many and varied demands placed on their system during this ordeal. Their members at ground zero were first in place and last to leave and they performed heroically. Assistant Chief James Schwartz was the first incident commander and he readily called for the assistance that was needed and was ably assisted by his staff. The Red Cross, Salvation Army, Verizon Communications, EMA, the military and the countless numbers of others who responded to this incident made the outcome more tolerant in view of the devastation which befell the members of FDNY who never had a chance to bring their incident to a close.
Let us never forget our brothers. Yes, we lost over 2,000 souls, but the efforts of the members of the FDNY and their sacrifice of 343 members saved well over 20,000 people who would not have survived if it were not for these heroic first responders.
Michael L. Smith, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 28-year veteran of the District of Columbia Fire Department, currently deputy chief/suppression and shift division commander, commanding all fire, EMS, hazmat, special operations and special events activities in the District on shift. He is a 30-year fire service veteran and is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officers Program at the National Fire Academy. Smith is a Certified Municipal Manger (CMM) from George Washington University and has degrees in fire science, construction management and labor law.