- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 11, 2002

D.C. Fire Chief Ronnie Few yesterday told a congressional committee that he is confident in his department's ability to respond to biochemical emergencies, despite the recent findings of an independent auditor that criticized the hazardous materials unit's staffing, training and competency.
"My department is prepared and able to manage and mitigate any emergency that requires our services," Chief Few told the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District.
Chief Few testified on the city's emergency response capabilities yesterday along with Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, D.C. Emergency Management Agency Director Peter LaPorte and Margret Nedelkoff Kellems, deputy mayor for public safety and justice.
U.S. Rep. Joe Knollenberg, Michigan Republican and subcommittee chairman, asked the officials about a report in The Washington Times on Tuesday that said a team of consultants contracted by Mayor Anthony A. Williams found the city's hazardous-materials (hazmat) unit deficient in all 10 criteria it measured, including staffing, training and competency.
The report, submitted by the Marasco Newton Group in December, recommended that the unit "needs improvement" or "needs significant improvement" in all areas and said "a number of outside agencies [shared] concerns regarding the safety and competencies of the hazardous materials unit within [the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services]."
"That review was done last fall, and since that time we've redoubled our efforts," Mrs. Kellems told the subcommittee yesterday. "We've put a dedicated unit together. It's built into next year's budget."
After the hearing, Chief Few said he had not seen the Marasco Newton report and couldn't comment on its contents until he had a chance to "thoroughly read" it.
"Our fire department's response to hazardous materials has changed quite a bit since September 11," he said, citing improvements in equipment and training and a commitment to a full-time dedicated hazmat unit.
The chief also said some of the problems the report cited were in place before he began as fire chief in 2000. "I can't correct every deficiency in 20 months," he said.
D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat and Judiciary Committee chairman, said yesterday that the hazmat unit's deficiencies are "not new information."
But Mrs. Patterson, who served as the D.C. Council's representative on the mayor's Emergency Management Task Force, said she was unaware of the Marasco Newton study. She said she has reviewed it since The Times reported about it Tuesday.
"I'm sorry this wasn't brought to the task force's attention," she said. "Some of this information would have been useful."
Mrs. Patterson said she didn't know whether Mrs. Kellems was "misguided" in her statement that the hazmat unit is fully budgeted for 2003 but that it was clear after Judiciary Committee budget hearings last month that the Williams administration's plan was to continue funding the unit through overtime funds.
"When we mark up the budget, we will require staffing and funding," Mrs. Patterson said.
Mrs. Kellems told The Times yesterday that the federal government has provided $14 million to the D.C. fire department for equipment and training, including hazmat detectors and first-responder entry suits.
Mr. Knollenberg quizzed Chief Few about a report last week in The Times that said only four of 29 students in a paramedics class passed a national registry exam last month.
"It's just a difficult test, and sometimes they just don't pick it up in one area of expertise," Chief Few said. "Most people around the country have to take the test twice."
Chief Few said reports about half of the department's paramedic slots being vacant are "a little overexagerated." He did not elaborate or provide figures.
When asked about reports that a significant percentage of fire department employees are failing registry and certification exams, Chief Few said, "I can assure you this: When they pass, they will be quality paramedics."

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