- The Washington Times - Monday, April 29, 2013

Officials within the D.C. mayor’s administration spent much of Monday clarifying comments made by Mayor Vincent C. Gray about whether the fire department could effectively respond to a disaster such as the recent Boston Marathon bombings.

Writing to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Mr. Gray in a letter dated April 22 was denying a request to increase overtime pay for the D.C. fire department when he stated it would be “almost impossible” for department employees to respond quickly to such an emergency given their far-flung locales.

“Should a serious emergency situation impact the District of Columbia, as it did just last week in Boston, it would be almost impossible for many off-duty [emergency] workers, who would be desperately needed, to respond in a timely manner to meet the needs of our residents,” Mr. Gray wrote.

The letter led to questioning of several administration officials throughout a D.C. Council committee hearing Monday on the readiness of the department to respond to a large-scale emergency, given that many fire department employees live outside the city.

“We are confidant, and we are prepared that we can respond to any emergency that takes place in the District of Columbia,” said Paul A. Quander Jr., the deputy mayor for public safety and justice. “Would it be ultimately better if all of our workforce worked within a 30-mile or 25-mile radius of the District of Columbia? I would say yes.”

Despite the alarming warning raised in the letter, which was first reported by The Washington Examiner, the mayor’s spokesman reiterated that the department is fully capable of handling a disaster.

“We never at any point say that we don’t think the District is unprepared. In fact, we think it is,” Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said.

The concern about the department’s readiness was raised as the mayor discussed a proposed shift change that would dramatically alter firefighters’ work schedules. Firefighters currently work a 24-hour shift, or the equivalent of three consecutive eight-hour shifts, followed by three days off — a schedule the mayor noted “permits many personnel to commute extraordinary distances to report for work.”

The proposed shift change would require firefighters to work more-frequent 12-hour shifts — a change that likely would require many firefighters to rearrange or reconsider second jobs, move closer to the District or leave the department altogether, Mr. Gray noted.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, said the letter has a “chilling effect” and grilled both Mr. Quander and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier about the city’s overall readiness to respond to disasters.

Chief Lanier said she feels “very comfortable” with the police department’s ability to respond, adding that officers who work for a host of specialized units are required to live within 25 miles of the city limits.

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