- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2001

After seven months as the District of Columbia's fire chief, Ronnie Few has begun a top-to-bottom revamping of the department a reorganization, he said, in which no job or long-standing procedure is sacred.
"I can tell you they just hired one [tough] fire chief to make the changes," Chief Few told The Washington Times during a two-hour lunch interview yesterday.
Chief Few said he has not been distracted by a Georgia grand-jury investigation that is focusing in part on him and his old department in Augusta, Ga. The panel has not issued any indictment since it was assembled in November 1999.
"With me, it's not going anywhere," the chief said of the investigation. "I never jeopardized the integrity of that department one bit. I wonder what they say I did wrong."
Instead, Chief Few said his focus is on the D.C. department, where he began implementing a restructuring plan Monday with the demotions and transfers of several top-level officials. He also promoted Battalion Chief Gary Garland to assistant chief overseeing safety.
He said he's "rethinking the entire fire department," an agency that's been troubled by turnover in the chief's office, low morale, poor equipment and three firefighter deaths since 1997.
When Chief Few arrived from Augusta last summer, he said then he had no plans to overhaul the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.
Now, however, "I want to benchmark the entire system and put accountability back into shape," Chief Few told The Times.
"We've got a lot of traditions in this department. We do a lot of things and we don't even know why sometimes," he said. "We still got some problems, and we're going to work at that. We're not where we want to be at."
The chief plans to bring in "top-level" instructors to advise him on everything from the deployment and training of firefighters to how a hose is rolled out at a fire to the grooming policy all of which is subject to revision.
Since Chief Few took over, response times for ambulances have dropped from 20 minutes to 15 minutes, and should drop another two minutes when a new radio system goes on line in April.
By next year, he wants it down to 10 minutes, which is about two minutes above the national average for large cities.
The chief also will create job descriptions for every position in the department so there is a definitive standard to measure performance.
More management shake-ups should be expected next week, the chief said, adding, "it's going to be tough to be a manager or supervisor at this department for the next six months."
"It's been difficult" to find managers, who often are more worried about offending someone than taking a tough stance, he said.
"When you start putting accountability in, you can make some enemies," Chief Few said. "I'm not here to win a popularity contest."
The chief's overhaul includes decentralizing of the department and shifting authority from battalion chiefs to captains putting the onus on them for decisions on budgets, repairs and operational protocols.
"I want the captains to have complete control of their fire stations," he said.
Many firefighters and medics already have undergone "customer service" training and diversity training, meant to reinforce his "zero-tolerance policy on discrimination."
Another challenge for Chief Few is the long-standing divide between the firefighter division with its sworn officers and the medical side, composed of civilian emergency medical technicians and paramedics.
The medic side has long been viewed as the department's "stepchild" because of its lower pay and tension compared with firefighters.
Chief Few plans to change that. He's already ordered firefighters and medics to wear the same kind of brass insignia on their collar as a symbolic start and will push on with "dual-role cross-training."
When fully implemented, members of a cross-trained department will have both firefighter and paramedic training. As part of that, Chief Few wants to increase the number of paramedic engines pumper trucks that have one paramedic and three or four firefighters from the current six to 33.
"I've made significant strides in trying to make sure we treat everybody equally," he said. "I'm trying to unify them."
While some firefighters have resisted paramedic training, the chief said the pay incentive may change their mind.
Among other proposals the chief plans:
* Asking the mayor to let the department retain more of the revenue it generates from ambulance service, currently about 40 percent.
* Requiring inspectors to check 10 buildings a day and submit monthly reports.
* Creating a "senior-citizen fire marshal," who teaches seniors how to check for fire-safety violations in their homes or apartment buildings.
* Creating a computerized call system to seniors and the physically disabled to check their well-being. If there's no answer, an engine company is dispatched on a non-emergency basis.
Representatives of the rank and file haven't had any major objections to Chief Few's plans yet, but they're not endorsing everything he's doing, either.
Kenneth Lyons, a leader of the union for medics, said Chief Few is "proceeding on shaky grounds" in his attempt to merge the medical and firefighting parts of the department.
"The whole concept of dual cross-training is something right now that's just not working," said Mr. Lyons, the incoming chairman of AFGE Local 3721.
Sgt. Ray Sneed, president of the D.C. firefighters union, said that Chief Few needs to be more specific about any changes he will make and let the firefighters know what is in store for them.
"It is easy to say you are going to make changes. It is hard to make them," Sgt. Sneed said.

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