- The Washington Times - Monday, August 11, 2003

The majority of the D.C. Fire and EMS Department’s hazardous-materials team failed an exam testing their competency in responding to emergencies, including chemical or biological attacks, city officials said yesterday.

Twelve of the 14 members who took the written test last week, before being assigned permanently to the team, scored less than 70 percent on the exam, which included questions about hazardous-materials mitigation, monitoring equipment and the department’s standard operating procedures. One technician did not show up to take the test.

“It’s bad, but it’s not the end of the world,” said Assistant Chief of Operations James Martin.

He said the members who failed would be transferred out of the unit and that new members would be recruited from within the fire department. Chief Martin said those who failed the exam could reapply but must also take the test again.

The department has about 240 firefighters certified as hazardous-materials technicians who could be immediately deployed. They would have a 90-day trial on the job before having to take the test.

Chief Martin said the technicians who failed the exam, some of whom have been assigned to the unit for more than two years, had passed a course at the Maryland Fire Rescue Institute certifying them as hazardous-materials technicians.

“They’re capable,” he said. “They are fully qualified at the national standard.”

Chief Martin said the test, which included multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank and short-answer questions, was comparable to the technician-certification test.

He said one possible explanation for why the scores were so low is that some of the technicians did not take the test seriously. He said some technicians also operate better in the field than on paper.

However, he said training is not an issue and made no excuses for those who failed.

“They were sent to training for every component we could send them to,” Chief Martin said. “It’s all on them.”

Those who pass the department’s internal written exam proceed to a live-exercise evaluation. Successful completion of the exam qualifies the technicians for a 5 percent pay increase.

The performance of the District’s hazardous-materials team has been a sore point for city officials attempting to upgrade emergency preparedness since the September 11 attacks.

A 32-page report commissioned by D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and issued in December 2001 by the Marasco Newton Group found the city’s hazardous-materials unit deficient in all 10 criteria it measured — including staffing, training and competency.

The study was conducted during the anthrax panic in October 2001, after several letters containing anthrax spores were mailed through a New Jersey postal center to news media and political offices in New York, Florida and Washington.

Anthrax-laced letters were also sent to the offices of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, both Democrats.

Five persons, including two workers at the Brentwood mail facility in Northeast that handled the letters, died and 23 others became ill from anthrax infection.

The report said some members assigned to the unit “expressed concerns about their own competencies and their personal safety.” It said the unit “needs improvement” or “needs significant improvement” in all areas it evaluated.

City officials said in response to the Marasco Newton report that many of the deficiencies had been corrected and that the department has begun training firefighters and acquiring gear such as hazardous-materials detectors and protective gear for first responders.

The hazardous-materials unit, which was formed in 1984 became a full-time dedicated unit in 1997. But low demand made the unit a target for company consolidation in 2000, when members split time between hazardous-materials duties and manning Engine 12. The team often consisted of two technicians and firefighters working overtime.

After the September 11 attacks and the anthrax panic, city officials restored the full-time dedicated unit, which responds to nothing but hazardous-materials calls.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

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