- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 6, 2001

D.C. Fire Chief Ronnie Few will cut firefighting services and personnel training this summer to resolve a $1.3 million budget deficit.
Chief Few tomorrow will begin shutting down engine companies for 12 hours at a time for maintenance and on Monday will end some recruits firefighting training early, fire department spokesman Alan Etter said.
Current spending rates will put the fire department $1.3 million over budget by Sept. 31, the end of the fiscal year. Chief Few and top department officials met Friday about the budget problem and devised a list of 13 cost-cutting initiatives.
Most of the initiatives order reductions of overtime and restrict leave, but the maintenance initiative will cut firefighting services. The Washington Times has obtained a copy of the initiatives.
Starting tomorrow, engine companies, or water pumpers, must spend 12 hours in preventive maintenance, regardless of how long the repairs actually take. Engine company firefighters will be sent to backfill department vacancies throughout the city instead of returning to their station on one of eight reserve trucks.
"It only takes an hour and a half to do preventive maintenance," said Lt. Raymond Sneed, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association, Local 36. "They would use it as an opportunity to rotate engine companies out of service. Its really engine companies being systematically rotated out of service."
"I think thats playing Russian roulette with the fire department," said D.C. Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat. "Its a very dangerous game to play, all with the goal of balancing the budget, which should have been balanced in the first place."
If the department cant balance its books, Chief Few will consider officially closing engine companies on a rotating basis. "Ive been told that is an absolute last resort," Mr. Etter said.
Battalion chief aides also could end up on the budgetary chopping block. Those positions are key safety requirements noted in independent reports after the deaths of three firefighters in the last four years. The D.C. Council also earmarked funds for those positions.
"In the vast universe of options, that is one," Mr. Etter said of cutting battalion chief aides.
If Chief Few tries to remove the aides, his proposal "is dead on arrival," Mr. Evans said.
Some city officials tried to play down the measures, saying they are not definite, but rather a list of options to fix a projected shortfall. A written fire department statement said the budget gap is "approximately 1.5 percent of the operating budget." The department has an operating budget of about $113.3 million.
But council member Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat, said the fire departments deficit is "serious."
"If theyre unable to curb the spending and rein that in to meet the budget target, they would have to look at service issues," said Mrs. Patterson, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which oversees the fire department.
Mr. Etter said it is "unclear if all [13 cost-cutting initiatives] will be done."
"Some of them will be done, though," he said.
However, a high-ranking fire official who attended Fridays meeting told The Times the department will implement all 13 initiatives, and possibly others that would affect service.
Chief Few on Monday will pull 30 rookies from the training academy and assign them to fill vacancies on ambulances as emergency medical technicians, Mr. Etter said. The rookies are within one month of graduating and receiving their firefighter certification.
Putting rookies onto ambulances without the three-month evaluation period is "dangerous," said Kenneth Lyons, a department paramedic and chairman of the union that represents emergency medical services workers.
Lt. Sneed said the 13 initiatives will hurt firefighting protection and torpedo department morale.
"If [Chief Few] did all of that, it would be total chaos," Lt. Sneed said. "There will be a direct impact on safety. Morale is already at an all-time low. This will extend that even further."
The list of initiatives says the deficit is $1.7 million, but officials said thats an error and the true figure is $1.3 million.
"How did this deficit occur in the first place?" Mr. Evans said.
Lt. Sneed said Chief Few has failed to tackle the major issues and is "taking it out of the hide of the firefighters and the firefighting division."
"This is not an overtime problem. This is a mismanagement problem," he said. "He has shown no new management skills, no display of anything out of the ordinary."
Mr. Etter said the department has reduced its deficit from about $4 million, and the $1.3 million gap "has been there since last October."
"Its something that was inherited," he said.
Margret Kellems, deputy mayor for public safety and justice, said cost-cutting ideas are issued when an agency faces a projected shortfall, giving officials a chance to correct the spending rate.
"This is how its supposed to work in a business environment," she said.


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