September 11, 2001 : Attack on America
Response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Events of 11 September 2001 Statement by Chief Edward P. Plaugher Arlington County (VA) Fire Department Presented to Committee on Environment and Public Works United States Senate; October 10, 2001

Response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Events of 11 September 2001

Statement by
Chief Edward P. Plaugher
Arlington County (VA) Fire Department

presented to
Committee on Environment and Public Works
United States Senate

October 10, 2001

Arlington County Fire Department
2100 Clarendon Boulevard
Arlington, VA 22201

Testimony of


Fire Chief, Arlington County Fire Department

I am Chief Edward Plaugher of the Arlington County Fire Department . I would like to begin by thanking the Committee for having me today.

I understand that the Committee is deeply concerned, as all of us are, with the events of September the eleventh. The shocking and tragic events of that day have had a profound impact on the men and women of my fire department and on this nation's fire service as a whole.

I will speak today to some of the specifics of Arlington County's response to the attack on the Pentagon and to the role of the Federal Emergency Management Agency on that day and subsequent weeks. I will also make several recommendations on how we might improve our response capability.

Our fire department's response to the plane crash began with a call for help from an Arlington County Fire Department engine company passing the Pentagon on its way to a more routine fire call.

Our Northern Virgina Automatic Aid program was immediately activated. Units from Ft. Myer, Alexandria, Fairfax and National Airport responded on the initial aid alarm. The second alarm included units from the District of Columbia Fire Department as well as from Montgomery County and Prince Georges County, Maryland. Those first responding fire units fought an inferno triggered by 6000 gallons of Jet fuel in the worlds largest office building.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) overall response to the attack on the Pentagon and its aftermath was superb. FEMA personnel arrived quickly and were extremely cooperative. They provided and continue to provide support to the Arlington County Fire Department and to our entire community. FEMA's field office director, Tom Davies, arrived with a positive, can-do attitude. He quickly explained that FEMA's core responsibility would be to work with the state of Virginia to ensure that all legally available aid was delivered as quickly and efficiently as possible. It came as a surprise to us that FEMA's operation was self-sufficient and imposed no support burden from Arlington County.

FEMA's front line operational contribution was made by its Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) program. FEMA mobilized teams based in Fairfax County and Virginia Beach, Virginia, Montgomery County, Maryland and Memphis, Tennessee, to assist in the search for survivors. FEMA's USAR team based in New Mexico was later mobilized to provide relief to exhausted rescue personnel.

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, I must tell you that FEMA's USAR teams made an outstanding contribution to our effort. These teams are comprised of dedicated professionals whose hard work and unyielding efforts should not be overlooked.

The capabilities of these teams are unique and generally are not available at the local level. As with FEMA's other operations, arriving teams are prepared for self-sufficient operations and thus did not burden Arlington County in any way with support requirements. That is in and of itself a sign of a well-designed response program.

Two resources brought by FEMA's USAR teams stand out in my mind. First, search-dog capability, a need unique to search and rescue in structural collapse, allowed for a swift and thorough search for victims that would not have been possible otherwise. Second, the inclusion of structural engineers in USAR team deployment provided the expert supervision that we needed to conduct the safest possible operation. Where else, in a crisis, do you find people with expertise like that?

All of us have room to improve how we do business. Though we in Arlington were impressed with FEMA's USAR capability, we were largely educated on FEMA's USAR capability at the Pentagon that day. It would be helpful if fire chiefs nationwide had a good understanding of USAR's role, capabilities and limits in advance of a catastrophe. My recommendation is that FEMA's USAR capability, including resources and operating procedures, be included in course curriculum at FEMA's National Emergency Training Center and particularly its National Fire Academy. A solid understanding of FEMA's USAR program, before a catastrophic incident occurs, would improve the overall operation of mitigating the event.

I would also recommend that performance capability objectives be developed for the USAR program. By that I mean a standardized list of capabilities that a local incident commander can count on when a USAR team is deployed. I mentioned, for example, the exemplary canine search capability brought by USAR to the pentagon. We must ensure that every USAR team enjoys the same capability. How many dogs should a team employ? For how long and over what area can a dog team search? If those kinds of capabilities can be standardized, we as fire chiefs can make safe assumptions with respect to our overall operational capabilities. It occurs to me that the development of these capability objectives should be developed by a panel of experts that includes both local emergency response officials and USAR experts.

There is another issue with respect to USAR that I would like to address. It came to my attention in the aftermath of the attack on the Pentagon that there is at least one, and usually two, complete back-up teams that can be called upon to relieve deployed USAR team members. However, I also learned that there is an equipment shortage that allows for only one appropriately equipped team to be deployed at a given time from any one of USAR's 28 bases. If the airplane that crashed in Pennsylvania the morning of September 11th had instead reached for Washington, DC, how would we have chosen where to send the existing cache of USAR equipment?

We know now that the passengers on that airplane took action to relieve us having to make such a choice. I believe we owe it to their memory to ensure sufficient USAR equipment cache is provided so that those who are trained and organized to use it effectively are not left helpless in any future multi-site incident.

We in the metropolitan Washington area are lucky to be home to both Montgomery County and Fairfax County's USAR teams. This is a unique situation.

FEMA has commonly been faced with the challenge of transporting USAR teams over great distances to render aid. This takes precious time. We in the fire service have testified repeatedly before the Congress on the role of "first response" to any disaster, terrorist or otherwise. The "first response" is key because in the minutes and first one or two hours after an event has occurred is the time frame in which the vast majority of survivors are rescued.

It seems to me that we should look at creating a USAR "lite" capability that could be mobilized locally to work in the search for survivors until a fully staffed and equipped FEMA USAR team can be brought to the scene of an incident. This would go a long way to bridging the specialized search and rescue gap that exists when USAR teams must travel long distances.

Incident command in circumstances like those we faced at the Pentagon is put to the test by fatigue. Our fire department's command staff was exhausted by the need for coverage for 24 hours a day, seven days a week for several weeks. I would propose what I will call a "Command Overhead Team" program be developed by FEMA that would allow a small number of chief fire officers, with significant command experience, to be mobilized to support operations in a future incident. These teams could work in shifts to provide command and planning support to a fire department engaged in large scale operations in the wake of a terrorist attack or natural disaster. It might also serve in a situation similar to that we saw in New York, where the fire chief and a large number of his command staff were killed in the collapse of the World Trade Center.

The level of cooperation and mutual assistance between FEMA and the Arlington County Fire Department was excellent. There are many moving parts to an effective response to a terrorist incident. Each of us must have good expectations of our own capabilities and a clear understanding of the roles and responsibilities of different agencies. In the final analysis, what transpired at the Pentagon, under the circumstances, was dealt with professionally and to the best of each of our abilities. We at the Arlington County Fire Department learned valuable lessons with regard to our own abilities and limits. It is my hope that we can all use those lessons to further a more effective preparedness effort.

I would like to conclude my remarks, Mr. Chairman, in speaking to the overall federal terrorism preparedness effort. There are said to be over 40 different offices and bureau's involved in terrorism preparedness across numerous federal agencies. Though we have made great strides in our operational interaction with federal agencies, there is an urgent need for better coordination of pre-incident support and training programs.

I testified last spring before the House Transportation Committee on a piece of legislation designed to address this issue. A Senate companion bill, S. 1453, the Preparedness Against Terrorism Act, 2001, was recently introduced by Senator Bob Smith and referred to this Committee. This bill codifies the Office for National Preparedness at FEMA that President Bush created earlier this year. It creates a "President's Council" that will be charged with the development of a single national strategy on terrorism preparedness that will include measurable preparedness goals.

We applaud President Bush's designation of Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania as our new "Homeland Security" coordinator. However, it seems to us that S. 1453 could bring focus and legal authority to this new effort. It is my understanding that the Bush Administration had significant input to this bill and I urge you to make whatever modifications are necessary to address Governor Ridge's role and to act favorably on the bill in sending it to the full Senate for consideration as quickly as is possible. We owe it to our country to have the best coordinated, comprehensive terrorism preparedness strategy as is possible.

Thank you again for having me today. I am happy to answer any questions.

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