- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 10, 2002

D.C. officials yesterday said the city is working to correct deficiencies in its emergency preparedness, as identified by an independent auditor in a report submitted to the city in December.

"This report has pointed out a reality we knew existed," said Tony Bullock, a spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams. "The Marasco Newton Group was retained to identify the weaknesses in our system so we could improve it. We've done a tremendous amount of work since September 11."

Margret Nedelkoff Kellems, deputy mayor for public safety and justice, said that the report contained "fair criticisms" of the city's emergency-response capabilities, but added that the situation has improved greatly since December, when the report was submitted.

"I would say we are much farther along," she said. "I feel much better about our capacity."

The 32-page report, contracted by the mayor and submitted by the Marasco Newton Group, found the city's hazardous-materials unit deficient in all 10 criteria it measured including staffing, training and competency and recommended the unit "needs improvement" or "needs significant improvement" in all areas.

The Washington Times first reported the Marasco Newton Group's findings yesterday. Fire department officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment yesterday.

Fire Chief Ronnie Few, Mrs. Kellems and Peter LaPorte, director of the D.C. Emergency Management Agency, are scheduled to testify today at a congressional subcommittee hearing on the city's emergency preparedness. They are expected to be questioned about the Marasco Newton report.

"That definitely will come up," said Chris Close, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Joe Knollenberg, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District of Columbia.

Mr. Bullock said the District has been "very successful" in acquiring funds from Congress to enhance the city's emergency preparedness.

Mrs. Kellems said the department has begun training firefighters and acquiring gear, such as hazardous-materials detectors and protective gear for first responders.

"Institutionally, that wasn't the priority and hadn't been for a long time," she said. "Now it is."

Last month, the department announced that 50 of about 120 firefighters involved in special operations had undergone Level 3 hazardous-materials training at the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute and that 75 others had undergone training up to Level 2.

Mrs. Kellems said she expects all firefighters to be trained through Level 2 by October.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Fire Protection Agency, Level 2 training involves protecting nearby persons, property or the environment from the effects of a hazardous-materials release without trying to stop the release. Level 3 training involves response to stop a release.

All D.C. firefighters are supposed to be trained to Level 2, but fire department sources say many are being forced to be recertified because the department lost their records or failed to tell them their certifications had expired.

The sources said that Level 1 and 2 certifications require 40 hours of class time, but that courses are being compressed into three days.

"You're getting the same test, but without the proper study materials or the proper time," one department source said, adding that about 75 firefighters are failing the most basic hazardous-materials classes.

Mrs. Kellems said the city's 2003 budget contains funds to staff the hazardous-materials unit with full-time, dedicated personnel, as recommended by the Marasco Newton report. But several fire department sources said the unit continues to be "cobbled together" from unqualified personnel sent from other units.

"The sad thing about it is we haven't addressed the issue of staff because we're detailing rather than having firefighters physically assigned there," said D.C. Firefighters Association President Raymond Sneed.

Lt. Sneed said that the report brought to light safety issues the union has long been concerned with and that the proper "level of concern is not there" on the part of senior fire management.

"I was disappointed to learn that the consultants had made a recommendation to the department as to how to better prepare, and the results were released in December and the firefighters were never alerted," he said.

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