- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2001

District of Columbia Fire Chief Ronnie Few this week said uniting and equalizing the firefighting and medical divisions of the Fire and Emergency Medical Service Department is necessary for public safety and efficiency.

Chief Few said "we will miss the boat" if the District does not create the "dual role, cross-training" system that allows paramedics to function as firefighters.

"If we don't start doing something about this … we'll be left with a single-dimensional department," the chief said during a luncheon interview Wednesday with reporters and editors at The Washington Times.

Chief Few said he will submit the dual-role cross-training legislation to the D.C. Council within the next two weeks. At least five council members have indicated their support for the bill to fire officials.

Under the "dual-role, cross-training" concept the chief proposes, civilian emergency medical technicians (EMTs) eventually will receive firefighter training. And current firefighters will have an opportunity to receive medical training, said Alan Etter, a department spokesman.

The salaries of cross-trained personnel would be higher than those of just firefighters or just EMTs.

Council member Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat, said she is "very supportive" of the proposal but has questions about the financial details.

"It benefits the community by having all the firefighters up to speed on the skills required in the department," said Mrs. Patterson, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which oversees the department. "It fosters a single department instead of what often appears to be two functions pushed together."

Chief Few already is laying the groundwork for the new system and said most of the changes can be accomplished through operations or by regulations.

But implementing this system will not be quick or easy, and there are several challenges standing in the way.

One complicated issue is how to convert the pay and pension benefits of civilian medics. The pay and pension system for firefighters is far more generous than those for civilian employees.

"We're taking a very hard look at the numbers and costs and issues of equity on both sides," said Margret Kellems, deputy mayor for public safety and justice. "We will have to make difficult decisions."

Chief Few also must find a way to reconcile the long-standing friction between the firefighting side and the medical division, which often is referred to as "the stepchild" of the department.

D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican, has introduced a bill to make the medical division a separate agency.

"This is not a slap at Chief Few, but I just want a full airing of the issues," said Mrs. Schwartz, who has council member Sandy Allen, Ward 8 Democrat, as a co-sponsor.

But D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and his recruiting team picked Chief Few specifically because they were confident he could unite the divisions.

They pointed to Chief Few's tenure in Augusta, Ga., where he presided over the merger of the county and city fire departments before taking over the District's department last summer.

More cross-trained personnel will increase public safety and the department's efficiency, said Chief Few and Dr. Fernando Daniels, head of the department's emergency medical services division.

And in the long run, it should save the department money about $3.5 million to $4 million a year by preventing the use of overtime funds, Dr. Daniels said.

As part of the initiative, Chief Few wants to make all 33 engine companies the pumper trucks that bring water to a fire "paramedic companies," or engines with at least a paramedic on board.

The department currently has six paramedic engine companies, and each engine has five members four firefighters and one paramedic.

When an engine is sent on a medical run, the firefighters sometimes have little to do, and vice versa for the paramedic during a fire call.

When personnel complete their cross-training, they will have the skills to assist during a fire or a medical call, increasing efficiency, fire officials said.

And under the dual-role system, engine companies will only need four members a money-saving change because one firefighter also can handle medical duties, the chief said.

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