- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 17, 2001

D.C. Fire Chief Ronnie Few defended his department's record yesterday, saying the problems with communication radios, staff shortages and emergency-response times are being addressed.
"Under my watch, we will fix this system," Chief Few told D.C. Council members at a hearing on the issue. "We will make sure firefighters are safe. And we are making progress in delivering better services to citizens."
He said that despite initial problems with the radios, the kinks in the system are being worked out and that a request for more equipment has been made to the federal government. Staff shortages, he said, are being aggressively addressed with new hiring policies. As for emergency-response times, Chief Few said there is no danger to public safety.
"We are doing a much better job than in the past," he said.
Chief Few, who has been on the job just over one year, has come under increasing fire from his employees. Yesterday, he ended the hearing with an outburst against the "poor system" he inherited and an upcoming vote of no-confidence by his firefighters.
"The only chiefs that get votes of no-confidence are those who try to generate change," he said. "My record stands for itself. I can take a vote of no-confidence myself [in my staff]."
The chief's response comes after criticism on Friday by leaders of the city's firefighters and medics unions, who accused the fire chief of failing to act on chronic public-safety and emergency-service problems and of failing to work effectively with the unions.
Lt. Raymond Sneed, head of the D.C. Firefighters Association, told council members at an oversight hearing by the D.C. Council Judiciary Committee that ongoing problems involving firefighters' radios, the department's computerized dispatch system and staff shortages continue to compromise firefighters' safety.
Lt. Sneed said long delays in dispatching emergency vehicles have become "a daily occurrence."
He also discussed in detail several incidents in which department personnel were unable to rely on their radios, including one in which "dead zones" were discovered outside the offices of council members in the newly renovated John Wilson Building.
Lt. Sneed said the union will take a vote off no-confidence in Chief Few on Oct. 22.
"It's amazing," he said of Chief Few's testimony yesterday. "He talked about research and studies and meetings, but he had no answers to the problems and never said anything about any changes made. In the meantime, we're still communicating on radios that aren't working properly, and emergency calls are not being answered because of staff shortages."
Lt. Sneed pointed to a shortage in radio towers leading to the "dead zones" that still hasn't been rectified. He said that while 19 antennas are needed, only four were initially installed.
Yesterday, Chief Few told council member Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat, that he has requested federal help in installing at least six more towers, but failed to supply documentation regarding the request to the council.
Mrs. Patterson said she believes some progress has been made in the department, but that "a lot off issues need to be followed up on." She said if the request for additional equipment to solve communications problems isn't sufficient, the council would amend the request.
"We have to get to this quickly," she said.
The Washington Times first reported this summer that the D.C. fire department's $5.3 million emergency radio system can not properly broadcast to firefighters in more than four dozen locations, including D.C. police and FBI headquarters, Union Station, the MCI Center and the State Department.
At the same time, internal documents showed that firefighters' personal, portable radios also have trouble communicating with each other and reaching the communications center in these locations.
After nine months of operation, the "dead zone" problems have become so bad that some firefighters are using their own cellular phones to call the incident commander during emergencies, union leaders said.
The 800-megahertz Motorola system went into service in January. Firefighters and higher-ranking officials immediately began writing reports to Chief Few and the safety office about the problems.

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