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Why was search and rescue team sent home?

Officials upset with FEMA over dispute that barred them from Rita rescues

They stepped up and answered the call to duty, but FEMA sent the Phoenix Urban Search and Rescue Team home packing from the hurricane disaster because the team brought armed officers to the hurricane zone.

FEMA says that's a direct violation of its code of conduct.  Phoenix City leaders say they were just trying to protect their own. 

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon and Bob Kahn, assistant chief of that city's fire department joined MSNBC's Dan Abrams on Wednesday's 'Abrams Report' to discuss why their attempt at help was rejected.

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

DAN ABRAMS:  All right look, Mayor, on its face to most people, this sounds absurd, the notion that your team brings in some marshals, who had actually been deputized as marshals, to come in and protect some of the firefighters, what is FEMA telling you about why they are going after you like this? 

GORDON:  And that's why we are asking the questions, because they won't.  All they have done is send us a two-page letter that has suspended one of the most experienced USAR (Urban Search and Rescue) teams in the nation, because four U.S. Marshals were there with their arms to protect the team and also to protect FEMA's equipment.  And instead of just saying that that's not what they wanted or. calling us, they suspended this team and actually sent them home early at a time when they were needed.  It's incredulous.

ABRAMS:  We should say we called FEMA.  We haven't gotten a response.  Let me read from the letter that Mike Tamillow, from FEMA, sent to you.

"Task force members operating outside the scope of work and the dispatch of additional unauthorized personnel has significant implications.  Respective task force members, as well as their sponsoring agency, can be held organizationally and personally liable in these cases.  Again, the possession of a firearm and unauthorized personnel on a mission all fall into these categories."

All right, so Mr. Kahn, I mean it sounds like they're saying that there were unauthorized people there, et cetera.  I mean did you guys know what the rules were with regard to FEMA? 

BOB KAHN, PHOENIX FIRE DEPARTMENT:  Yes, we knew the outline, we knew the activation orders.  We considered this a security attachment of U.S. Marshals to our FEMA team, to our Urban Search and Rescue Team, for their security and for the benefit of the deployment to make them safer while they were doing their job. 

ABRAMS:  And when exactly did this happen? 

KAHN:  We did this on both the deployments both on Katrina to New Orleans.  The team made over 400 rescues and also to Hurricane Rita. 

ABRAMS:  And how did they find out that you all had guns? 

KAHN:  It was known.  Actually, when we were there, it was very apparent.  We weren't hiding it.  They were U.S. Marshals.  They were carrying the guns.  It was known in a conference call in early September before we went to Rita.  We had the conversation.

Most of the issues were centered around actually not the security but who was going to pay for the U.S. Marshals.  It really didn't seem to be a problem at that time.  And then an incident six days into the Rita deployment became an issue. 

ABRAMS:  Mr. Mayor, one of the possibilities I guess that FEMA seems to be suggesting is that you all could have to pull out of FEMA, which would mean you'd have to give back a lot of the equipment that you use even on your local search and rescue, et cetera, isn't that right? 

GORDON:  Dan, first of all, this is ridiculous and it has got to get solved and it's going to get solved.  These were U.S. Marshals, by the way, not part of the team.  They were U.S. Marshals, so they were there for security.  They weren't part of the team.  There was no rule broken. 

But to answer your question, this is federal equipment that is stored at the Phoenix facility that allows the deployment to occur.  It's not equipment we use.  We don't want to pull out.  We want-in fact, our firefighters are hurting not because of this letter, but because they can't do their job.  They can't go into harm's way to save people.

In fact, they were sent home early.  This is ridiculous.  It's going to get changed.  And that's what we are arguing about, is this is bureaucratic gobble-gook...

ABRAMS:  And it seems you've got a very important senator on your side, Senator John McCain sent the following letter to the homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff.

"The law recognizes deputized marshals as federal marshals and now to penalize them for their selfless efforts to aid in the recovery makes no sense.  The Urban Search and Rescue Team in Phoenix is one of the best in the nation.  In my view, to prohibit their participation in future emergency response efforts, would not be in the public interest and could result in the difference between life and death for disaster victims."

Mr. Mayor, my prediction is they are going to drop this whole thing.  My prediction is that they are going to change the rule in FEMA, to make it a little bit more malleable, to make it one where it depends on the situation, more et cetera.  We will see.  I'll be stunned if they don't.  But if they don't we'll have you back on.  We appreciate you taking the time and waiting as we did that breaking news before.

Watch the 'Abrams Report' for more analysis and interviews on the top legal stories each weeknight at 6 p.m. ET on MSNBC TV.