Case #1712.0

Command Performance: County Firefighters Take Charge of the 9/11 Pentagon Emergency

Publication Date: June 01, 2003
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The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 on the Pentagon brought death and destruction to one of the nerve centers of American power, a site where top military officials came to work every day. When terrorists deliberately crashed a commercial jetliner into the southwest wall of this giant government landmark, it rendered a large portion of the building unstable and started a ferocious fire inside, where--rescuers hoped--Pentagon workers might be trapped but still alive. Despite the serious nature of the attack, the emergency response to the disaster was led by neither a high political official nor a four-star general. Instead, remarkably, the response and rescues at the Pentagon were led by James Schwartz, the assistant chief of a county fire department in the State of Virginia. A few hours into the emergency, Schwartz was, in fact, introduced to US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as "the man who owns this ground" by one of Rumsfeld's own generals. This case describes the unprecedented emergency response operation and many of its key turning points and places it within the broader context of a national system in which authority is widely decentralized. Specifically, the case tells the story of how the Arlington County, Virginia Fire Department used the "incident command system" to oversee the Pentagon emergency response and how it responded when the professional mandates of far higher-profile agencies--including the Department of Defense, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Environmental Protection Agency--collided with those of the firefighting and rescue effort. Despite years of practice and preparation, fire officials would face a string of predicaments at the Pentagon emergency that had never been foreseen.

Learning Objective:
The case can serve as a platform for discussion about inter-jurisdictional cooperation in emergency response and, by extension, cooperation across units of government in a wide variety of situations. At the same time, it allows for discussion of the specifics of incident command in one of the highest-profile emergency response situations in American history.

Other Details

Case Author:
Pamela Varley
Faculty Lead:
Arnold Howitt
Pages (incl. exhibits):
United States
Funding Source:
Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice