Build response chain -- before disaster

BY SUSAN KIM | FAIRFAX, Va. | October 30, 2002



"It's hard to understand how to manage a large-scale incident like this,."

—James Schwartz


If you're responding to a disaster, is there really time to coordinate with your neighbor? Doing so may be vital to an effective response, whether you're a highly trained responder, a church group, or just a person who lives on the block.

In a recent review of response to the Sept. 11 Pentagon attacks, DC area fire and FBI officials alike stressed the importance of building relationships well before disaster strikes.

That means everything from getting to know your neighbor, to developing joint training programs, to finding out the FBI's expectations for voluntary groups.

"Every FBI office across the country has a 'weapons of mass destruction coordinator,' " explained Special Agent Christopher Combs, who works in the FBI's Washington, D.C. field office.

That person will help guide overall response, he said, and can suggest planning and training tips before disaster strikes. "Communicate with that coordinator, and they'll let you know what the FBI would do in your area," suggested Combs.

FBI bureaus across the country may handle terrorist attacks or other disasters in vastly different ways, he added. "There are 700 agents in the Washington field office, but in some states, they may have 90 people for an entire state."

Combs and other disaster responders met in Fairfax, Va. -- a D.C. suburb -- Monday to talk about their "lessons learned" from the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the Pentagon. At a seminar offered through George Mason University's department of continuing professional education, they hashed out what went well and what didn't.

Many people associate the Pentagon with Washington, D.C., but the massive building is in Arlington, Va., the nation's smallest county in geographic terms.

Arlington County is densely populated, and heavily used commuter highways surround the Pentagon, explained James Schwartz, assistant chief of the Arlington County Fire Department. "Cars were log-jammed on those roads trying to get out of Washington, D.C."

In spite of the chaos, by relying on relationships and trust cemented long before the Sept. 11 attack, D.C. area responders were able to communicate more rapidly as a group, even at a disaster as massive as the Pentagon attack.

"It's hard to understand how to manage a large-scale incident like this," said Schwartz.

The Pentagon sits on 583 acres, and the building itself has 17.5 miles of hallways running through it. Its center courtyard is five acres. On a typical day, it holds 23,000 people.

The jet that crashed into the building was carrying 6,000 gallons of fuel.

Thirty-seven minutes after the plane hit, part of the building collapsed. Crews were then responding to a terrorist attack, a building fire, a plane crash, and a building collapse.

There were 184 lives lost at the Pentagon during the attacks, both in the building and on the hijacked airplane. On Sept. 11, half the area struck by the aircraft was undergoing renovation and so was empty, sparing many lives.

There are reports that people saw the airplane circle once before hitting the Pentagon, Schwartz said. "Then it made virtually a perfect landing into the building without hitting the ground first."

But no emergency 911 call came in. Instead, the immediate response -- like that of many local disasters -- came from Pentagon employees themselves and from nearby crews that saw the plane go down.

During a disaster, neighbors often help rescue neighbors, and that's just what happened at the Pentagon, said Schwartz. "It's hard to tell this story without giving recognition to the military and civilian employees of the Pentagon. They performed most of the initial rescues, and they performed them without the training or the protective equipment the firefighters had."

Either people got out and lived, or they didn't and died, said Schwartz. "We had 94 patients transported to area hospitals, including 10 that went to the burn center. One only succumbed to their injuries and died."

Both Combs and Schwartz said the trust already in place among responding groups -- firefighters, police, FBI, medical teams, and many others -- came into play within minutes after the disaster struck.

But even with the relationships they'd carefully built, there was miscommunication, said Combs. When evidence gathering crews were searching for the plane's black boxes -- which were ultimately ruined by the intense heat -- the black boxes almost got trashed.

Because they're not black, said Combs. "Black boxes are actually orange," he said. "Somebody almost threw them away because they didn't know what they looked like."

Schwartz and Combs also cautioned responders to be aware of their vulnerability to a second attack. "We were on the scene when we heard another aircraft had been hijacked and was headed toward Washington," said Schwartz. "We ordered hundreds of responders to evacuate, and we positioned them under highway overpasses."

That plane ultimately crashed in Pennsylvania. But -- largely because of lack of communication -- Pentagon responders had to evacuate two more times when two unannounced aircraft flew toward them. Ironically, one was U.S. Attorney General John Aschcroft flying into the area, and the other was FEMA Director Joe Albaugh.

After initial rescues were underway, representatives from dozens of faith-based and voluntary organizations ended up responding at the Pentagon, doing everything from providing spiritual care for search-and-rescue crews to serving meals for firefighters.

Whenever you're responding, if you're asked to evacuate, obey the evacuation order, cautioned Combs. "If that evacuation order comes there's a very good reason it's being put out. We had serious concerns that other attacks were coming."

And whoever you are -- and whatever level the response -- build a chain of relationships beforehand, they reiterated.

"Never break that chain," said Schwartz.

Added Combs: "Not even for an hour. Don't break it."


Related Topics:

Motorcycle riders honor Flight 93

NJ interfaith group closes doors

Observing 9/11 by doing good deeds


More links on September 11 2001

Advertisers:

DNN Sponsors include:

Advertisements: