- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 6, 2000

Ronnie Few, recently named as the District of Columbia's new fire chief, faces big challenges in running a bigger fire department in a metropolitan area.

Chief Few, who has run the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department in Georgia since 1997, is taking over a department that has had two chiefs resign since November, three firefighters die since 1997 and is just starting to overcome longtime equipment problems.

If the D.C. Council approves his nomination, Chief Few would leave a city whose ambulance service is run by a private company and would take over a department with a troubled emergency medical services (EMS) division.

City ambulance response times are low, paramedics complain they are understaffed and lack vehicles, and the department is starting to merge its 600-member civilian division with its 1,400 sworn firefighters.

Chief Few, a 47-year-old native of East Point, Ga., graduated from DeKalb College with a fire science degree. He began firefighting in 1972.

He worked his way through the ranks to become fire chief in 1993. He became Augusta's first black fire chief in 1997 and presided over the merger of the county and city fire departments.

The Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department has 320 employees and a $14 million budget, compared with the District's 2,000 employees and $111 million budget. The Augusta department serves 415,000 residents, while the District's serves more than 520,000 residents and 1.5 million people, counting commuters and visitors.

Chief Few, who earned $80,000 in Augusta, will make $130,000 in the District when he starts on July 10.

Sgt. Raymond Sneed, president of the D.C. Firefighters Union, said the chief's background with a much smaller department is a challenge but added, "He will be able to overcome it."

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who introduced Chief Few to a graduating class of firefighting recruits Friday at Howard University, said he is certain the chief can make the leap to a big-city fire department.

"I'm absolutely confident he's up to the job and will excel at it," Mr. Williams said. "He really has the kind of leadership we need in our history and our city."

Mr. Williams said Chief Few will continue the safety reforms started under former interim fire Chief Thomas N. Tippett, who resigned last month over a $4 million funding dispute with the D.C. financial control board.

The board opposed funding for a fifth firefighter on ladder trucks and battalion chief aides two measures recommended in several reports on the deaths of three D.C. firefighters since 1997.

"I wouldn't give you this chief if I didn't think [he] wasn't dedicated to these principles," Mr. Williams told the graduating firefighters Friday.

But Chief Few also brings baggage.

The Washington Times reported Friday that a special grand jury inquiry in his home county includes an investigation into his role in questionable pay-raise distributions. A grand jury report from last year said high-level bureaucrats got big raises at the expense of rank-and-file firefighters.

Chief Few has said the pay raises were justified and the investigation found nothing wrong.

The chief said Friday he has no plans to overhaul the D.C. fire department and will examine operations and "make sure things go right."

Al Rowell, president of the union that represents paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs), expressed confidence that Chief Few will devote more resources to the medical aspect of the department. "I think he'll do the right thing," he said.

EMS workers have felt like "stepchildren" of the fire department for years and say more ambulance units and personnel are needed, Mr. Rowell said.

Cynthia Lightfoot, a paramedic on the search committee that selected Chief Few, said she was "comfortable" with his answers to questions about running the medical division in the District.

Chief Few has shown leadership and a commitment to community outreach during his 27-year career, according to those who know him professionally.

Augusta Mayor Bob Young, who wanted to keep Chief Few, said the chief established an aggressive training program including mandatory EMT certification for new firefighters that made the fire department more professional.

Chief Few initiated a number of community outreach programs in Augusta, including:

• An automated system that calls registered senior citizens daily. If they don't answer, an engine company or sheriff's deputy is dispatched to check on them.

• "Burn houses," homes with food and clothing next to fire stations where families displaced by fires can stay for a few days.

• A "fire house on wheels" educational program for schools and children.

He also directed firefighters to install free smoke detectors in inner-city homes.

Chief Few will be able to handle the D.C. fire department's highly charged political environment, where he must answer to numerous levels of bureaucracy, several associates said.

Romeo Spaulding, acting executive director of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters in Landover, said Chief Few is a "consensus builder" a phrase the chief himself used on Friday who can work in the political environment surrounding the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.

"He's a quick learner. I think he'll be able to stay out of trouble," said Mr. Spaulding, who has known Chief Few for 20 years.

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