- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 5, 2004

Fire trucks and ambulances rushing to emergencies have been stopped for inspection at new security checkpoints around the Capitol, a D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services official said yesterday.

“What it means for people having a medical emergency on Capitol Hill is that it might take us longer to get to you,” said Alan Etter, spokesman for the department. “Just because you have a light and sirens doesn’t mean you are going to get there any faster in this atmosphere.”

Mr. Etter said ambulances and fire trucks en route to emergencies have been stopped at the checkpoints established Tuesday. However, he cited no incidents in which a patient died or a fire burned out of control because of delayed response times.

“It certainly creates a potential situation where response time can be delayed,” Mr. Etter said.

He said the closing of First Street in Northeast also slowed response times in Capitol Hill because emergency vehicles must contend with traffic congestion as motorists detour onto neighborhood streets.

The U.S. Capitol Police closed a busy section of First Street NE and set up more than a dozen traffic checkpoints around the Capitol, a response, in part, to the elevated terror alert for the District.

Michael Lauer, Capitol Police spokesman, said he had no knowledge of a fire truck or ambulance responding to an emergency being stopped at a checkpoint.

“We have something in place that would allow them not to be affected by security checkpoints,” he said, but declined to elaborate.

A memorandum Tuesday from D.C. Fire Chief Adrian H. Thompson to his staff advised that emergency vehicles with activated sirens might not be allowed to pass through checkpoints. The memo also advised crews to find routes around the checkpoints.

“Fire and EMS vehicles will not be waved through unless prior notification is made through the [department’s] communications division that units are en route,” he said in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times.

Mr. Etter said fire truck and ambulance crews headed to emergencies have encountered Capitol Police at checkpoints who were unaware of the service call, despite notifications from their dispatchers.

Officer Lauer said such incidents should not occur.

The Metropolitan Police Department yesterday also was prepared for potential delays.

“It’s obviously a concern of the department that [the checkpoints] could slow times in getting from point A to point B,” said Kevin P. Morison, department spokesman.

Mr. Morison had no examples of the checkpoints delaying police, but said the potential for delays could increase when traffic increases this fall.

Metropolitan Police officers took more than a minute longer to respond to emergency calls last year than they did in 2002, The Times has reported.

The statistics, in the department’s fiscal 2005 budget performance report, show the average response time for the highest-priority calls was 8 minutes, 25 seconds in fiscal 2003. The average time was 7 minutes, 19 seconds in fiscal 2002, and 7 minutes, 47 seconds in fiscal 2001.

The road closing and checkpoints were imposed after U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on Sunday increased the terror threat level to Code Orange. He elevated the alert after “unusually specific” intelligence indicated that al Qaeda was planning attacks on five financial institutions in the District, New York and New Jersey.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams immediately raised the city’s alert level, and metropolitan police heightened security around the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Northwest, two institutions identified in the threat.

World Bank and International Monetary Fund officials said yesterday they will shorten their annual meetings next month — which usually draw protests and occasional riots — from four days to two days to curb the disruption in the city.

The alert also prompted Metro to send armed police to patrol subway stations, and state police in neighboring Maryland began inspecting every truck entering the District on Route 50.

Yesterday, federal officials scrapped a plan to restrict truck traffic on 15th Street adjacent to the Department of Treasury’s main building in Northwest. Instead, the sidewalk on the west side of that stretch of 15th Street will be temporarily closed to pedestrians.

The sidewalk closing is from the intersection of Pennsylvania and New York avenues to Alexander Hamilton Place, Secret Service officials announced last night.

However, pedestrians will still have access to the nearby Sherman Park.

Federal law enforcement officials left open the possibility of future traffic restrictions in the area, depending on evolving security concerns.

The sidewalk could be closed within the next few days, said the law enforcement agent, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

D.C. officials have criticized the Capitol Police for not consulting them before closing First Street and setting up the checkpoints.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said yesterday that delayed response time for emergency responders was another negative effect of the new traffic restrictions.

“Increasingly, both the checkpoints and street closing appear to cause more danger to public safety than they assist us in safeguarding security,” said Mrs. Norton, a Democrat. “We must find more rational solutions.”

Staff writer Tarron Lively contributed to this article, which was based in part on wire service reports.

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