- The Washington Times - Monday, May 20, 2002

D.C. firefighters lost precious seconds in battling a blaze at Sen. Evan Bayh's home in Northwest late last month because their hoses would not fill with water.
The four-man crew from Engine Company 20 were forced to watch as the senator's house burned until another unit arrived with a properly functioning water pump on their fire engine.
The April 24 incident at the Indiana Democrat's house, in which no one was injured but $150,000 worth of damage was sustained, symbolizes a crisis in management that has left the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department with crumbling stations, aging vehicles, faulty radios, inadequate training and flagging morale among its 1,900-plus members.
Some problems have plagued the department for years, while others have emerged more recently during the 22-month administration of Fire Chief Ronnie Few.
Yet solutions have been slow to develop if at all in a fire department bureaucracy that must deal with two separate and strong unions while answering to the mayor, the D.C. Council and Congress. And changes in leadership haven't helped: Mayor Anthony A. Williams has had four different fire chiefs in the first 2 years of his administration.
"The department is not where it needs to be. What is important is [that] the most serious issues are more serious [now] than they were two years ago," said council member Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which oversees the fire department.
"The lack of a reserve fleet, the importance of the communication systems failures are two issues that predate [Fire Chief] Ronnie Few but that have not been addressed."
Chief Few and his immediate supervisor, Deputy Mayor Margret Nedelkoff Kellems, declined to comment about the state of the department.
Among the department's major issues:
Division of labor. In theory, the fire department is set up to run like the Los Angeles Lakers on a fast break. In practice, it runs like the Lakers in a sack race.
Though the fire suppression and emergency medical services (EMS) divisions operate under one chief, they are represented by two different unions, are paid according to two different pay scales and are assigned two different missions.
EMS workers complain they receive less attention and less of the department's resources because fire officials have emerged through the ranks of the fire suppression division.
Cross-training of paramedics. For more than two years, fire officials have tried to cross-train paramedics to work on engine companies so they can more quickly answer calls for critical medical care.
Six engine companies had been staffed full-time with paramedics in the department's efforts to merge the fire suppression and EMS divisions. But those companies now face shortages because of the turnover rate of paramedics and the department's inability to recruit and train new ones.
Radio system. In January 2001, the fire department began using a $5.3 million emergency radio system that cannot reliably reach firefighters in more than four dozen locations around the city, including police and FBI headquarters, Union Station, the MCI Center and the State Department.
Fire officials have said the problems stem from the fact that the city needs 19 antenna towers to relay radio signals but had only four. The additional towers for the 800-megahertz Motorola system were eliminated to cut costs.
Mrs. Patterson says that the department's capital budget includes funds to upgrade the radio system, and that part of $45.5 million in federal September 11 funds earmarked for the Office of the Chief Technology Officer is to be used to correct the system's problems.
Fire vehicles. Firefighters are racing to fires in 15-year-old, patched-up engines that should have been scrapped four years ago.
The department's reserve fleet of firetrucks is so low that on some days there is no reserve equipment.
Although the city has scheduled purchases and funding for new firetrucks for about four years, it has just begun ordering the first new engines in two years, using $14.6 million in additional federal money for emergency preparedness in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. It takes almost a year to build and deliver these custom-made vehicles.
Fire stations. Firefighters live in stations throughout the city that have exposed wiring and leaky plumbing and roofs.
For example, at Engine Company 20 in Northwest which has been designated a historic landmark engines must back in from Wisconsin Avenue with no stoplight for cover. The building lacks proper ventilation for the diesel exhaust of the departing vehicles, and the living quarters have inadequate plumbing and heating.
At Engine Company 10 on Florida Avenue NE, the roof leaks, the ceiling in the office has been removed, exposing the wiring and plumbing to the firefighters working in the area. In the second-floor living quarters, only one of three showers works.
Job vacancies. The number of job vacancies in the department has remained about the same during the past two years about 65 vacant firefighter positions and about 35 vacant paramedic posts.
Those duties have been filled by current employees who have been paid overtime, which costs the department about $2 million a year. The unbudgeted overtime payments are doled out from money set aside for the salaries of the unfilled positions.

'Needs are not being met'
"I think the underlying issue here is that the public safety needs are not being met or they are being met despite Chief Few," said council member Adrian M. Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat who has been leading the charge to fire the chief. "If Chief Few goes, the next person has to know what the challenges are."
The fire department has a budget of about $120 million and a staff of about 1,350 firefighters, 390 EMS workers and 200 support and communications personnel. Fire suppression receives about $74 million, while EMS receives about $22 million. The remaining $24 million is used for communications, administration, training and administrative support.
A key problem in the department is that firefighters and EMS workers are represented by two different labor unions the D.C. Fire Fighters Association, Local 36, and the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 3721.
Each union has its own collective bargaining agreements with the department that provide different salaries, benefits, pensions, ranks and schedules. For example, the fire suppression division operates on 24-hour shifts, while EMS operates on 12-hour shifts.
The two divisions have been under one department for more than three decades. Over the last three years, D.C. officials have had little success in merging the divisions into one unit so employees receive the same pay and benefits and work under the same command structure.
Three years ago, city officials envisioned cross-training paramedics to also serve as firefighters and assigning them to engine companies as the way to unite the two divisions, reduce response times to emergency medical calls and add firefighting personnel to engine companies.
In 2000, the department began a pilot program with six engine companies, each assigned four firefighters and one paramedic from the EMS division's ambulance units. Other engine companies operate with just four firefighters.

'Totally overwhelmed'
Chief Few last year started an in-house, cross-training program, but only four of 30 students received certification, while the rest either dropped out or failed. The six engine companies still operate with four firefighters and one paramedic, but a shortage of paramedics has necessitated overtime payments and ambulance units being taken out of service.
The council's Judiciary Committee report on fire department operations blamed Chief Few and his staff.
"Agency officials have not paid the sufficient attention to a program that was touted as a necessity for the department to make it a success," according to the committee report written by Mrs. Patterson.
Mrs. Patterson said in an interview that Chief Few could have solved the problem by making sure paramedics had their pension plans bought out to allow them to become firefighters and participate in the firefighters' retirement program without being penalized.
"Ronnie Few has allowed dual-role cross-training to languish for the last 22 months," said Lt. Raymond Sneed, president of the D.C. Fire Fighters Association, Local 36.
"I think he is totally overwhelmed. He came from small systems where you can pick up a phone and get things done," said Kenneth Lyons, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 3721, which represents emergency medical and support employees.
Before coming to the District, Chief Few headed the East Point, Ga., Fire Department, which has about 110 employees, and the Augusta-Richmond County, Ga., Fire Department, which has more than 300. Neither of the Georgia fire departments operates an ambulance service.
"We felt, on the one hand, he did not have the experience of running a large department, but he did have experience in the merger of two other departments," said Stephen Harlan, former D.C. financial control board member and chairman of the selection committee that chose Chief Few to run the department in 2000.
The merger of Augusta's and Richmond County's fire departments was accomplished a year before Chief Few took charge of the combined operation in 1997.

Lack of leadership
Chief Few is the D.C. fire department's fourth leader in the past 2 years. His predecessors in the Williams administration include:
Chief Donald Edwards, who was forced to resign in November 1999 because he had failed to buy needed equipment and hire firefighters.
Interim Chief Thomas N. Tippet, who resigned in May 2000 because Mr. Williams denied his request for funding for a fifth man on ladder trucks and battalion chief aides.
Battalion Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe, who served as interim chief before Chief Few joined the department.
Changes in leadership have contributed to the department's low morale, which Mrs. Patterson says has "hit rock bottom" in the wake of Chief Few's resume scandal and that of his top aides.
The Washington Times first reported March 13 that Assistant Chief Gary L. Garland, Assistant Chief Marcus R. Anderson and Deputy Chief Bruce A. Cowan lied on their resumes about having held the rank of chief in their previous jobs in the East Point Fire Department.
The firefighters, whose resumes also contained falsifications about their educational achievements, were friends and subordinates of Chief Few when he led the East Point department in the 1990s.
The Washington Post reported April 12 that Chief Few's resume falsely stated that he had received a bachelor's degree from Morris Brown College in Atlanta and received the "1998 Fire Chief of the Year" award from the International Association of Fire Fighters, which does not bestow such an award.
Meanwhile, though Congress has four subcommittees with oversight of D.C. finances and operations, it has kept largely quiet about the fire department except for U.S. Reps. Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, who has criticized the department in the past, and Curt Weldon, Pennsylvania Republican, whose newsletter has chided Chief Few for hiring cronies.
Most members of Congress seem willing to follow the lead of D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's non-voting congressional representative. Mrs. Norton, a Democrat, has not taken a stand on Chief Few and the state of the D.C. fire department.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide