- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2001

District of Columbia Fire Chief Ronnie Few yesterday vowed to continue "a shake up" of the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department amid questions about safety, test cheating and ambulance service.

The chief, appearing on "Ask the Chief" on WTOP radio, said he inherited a lot of problems when he took over the fire department last summer.

But now "I'm cleaning them up,"he said, even if it means "getting some people out of their comfort zones."

But Chief Few did not address a major safety issue still plaguing the department: the lack of a fifth firefighter on all engine company trucks.

Three trucks engine companies 5, 10 and 12 have operated since last November without a full complement of five firefighters despite recommendations in several reports on the deaths of three D.C. firefighters since 1997.

Chief Few said last year he supports the measure, and the D.C. Council funded it, but a budget mishap in November forced him to reduce the staffing.

Now the department has missed an early-March deadline, said Lt. Raymond Sneed, president of the D.C. Firefighters Union.

The lack of the fifth firefighter "diminished the level of fire protection for those communities," Lt. Sneed said. "It sends a bad message to the firefighters: You have to work in a less-safe environment than your colleagues at the other trucks.

"This issue, it seems to me, has been pushed on the back burner," Lt. Sneed added.

He acknowledged that Chief Few inherited the problem, but he asked, "What type of leadership are you going to provide to make it better?

"If there's a deficit, let's be creative and provide a safe working environment, even if we have to make some changes in other areas. Safety should be first and foremost in this department," Lt. Sneed said.

Several D.C. Council members and staffers yesterday said the department was supposed to meet the March deadline, which was set in a verbal agreement and not written down.

Fire department spokesman Alan Etter said, "It's going to happen in March, or possibly at least by the first pay period in April. It is absolutely a priority for the chief, one of many."

On top of last year's budget confusion, new spending pressures such as the need to raise communication workers' pay have cropped up, Mr. Etter said.

"Because of the additional spending pressures, they are actually running a little bit behind in getting the fifth man," he said.

Council member Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, holds oversight hearings today on the fire department, and plans to ask Chief Few about the issue, staffers said.

During his radio interview yesterday, Chief Few addressed several recent problems in the department, reiterating that he must make uncomfortable but necessary changes.

"Before my tenure is up, I'm going to be proud to say I made a difference in the Fire and EMS Department," Chief Few said.

One tradition he already is working to change is the way promotion tests are written and conducted, in the light of recent reports about cheating on the tests. WTOP radio first reported the problem.

As he waits for a report from the D.C. inspector general, Chief Few said he will have someone from outside the department write future tests.

"When you have people writing the test within, there's a problem with that. They've been having problems for many years."

The chief said because many firefighters know each other and "have grown up with each other," there is "camaraderie" that can lead to tests being compromised.

Another problem that has plagued the department for years is slow response time for ambulances. Chief Few said currently response time is down from 20 minutes last summer to 14.7 minutes.

He said he eventually plans to have a department-wide "paramedic engine company" program, despite opposition from some firefighters and medics. A paramedic engine company has at least one firefighter on the fire truck who is certified as a paramedic.

"D.C. will never move forward … will never be the city it can be unless this is in place," Chief Few said.

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