- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 5, 2004

The U.S. Secret Service has developed a fire-and-rescue unit to operate exclusively on the grounds of the White House and the vice president’s mansion at the Naval Observatory, according to public-safety sources with knowledge of the operation.

The unit will replace the duties of the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, whose traditional responsibilities have included responding to emergency calls at the executive mansion and standing by during takeoff and landing of Marine One, the presidential helicopter.

“The D.C. fire department will no longer be [dispatched to the White House] as a primary responder,” said one source, who confirmed the existence of the unit on the condition of anonymity. “It will only be there to support the Secret Service unit during a crisis.”

Secret Service officials yesterday would not confirm or deny the new unit’s existence.

The sources said the Secret Service unit was instituted largely because of security concerns about D.C. fire department personnel, who have not been required to undergo FBI background checks since 1992.

The background check currently used by D.C. fire officials only looks at the recruit’s driving history and whether he or she has a criminal record.

In the past, D.C.firefighters were required to undergo a “public trust” background check, which looked into their driving and financial records, checked for any criminal record and interviewed references and past associates.

The new unit is made up of uniformed Secret Service officers who have been cross-trained at the Maryland Fire Rescue Institute in College Park as firefighters, emergency medical technicians, hazardous-materials technicians and rescue technicians. The unit recently became operational, although it could not be determined how long ago.

A spokeswoman for the Secret Service said yesterday she could not comment on any operational aspects of the agency.

“Our employees, officers and agents, we are trained in a variety of aspects so that we can respond to a variety of situations,” spokeswoman Ann Roman said.

Reached by telephone yesterday, a representative of Horton Emergency Vehicles in Grove City, Ohio, confirmed that the company had recently sold the Secret Service apparatus to equip the unit.

The unit is outfitted with rescue squads, fire engines and ambulances to protect the White House grounds and personnel. The vehicles bear the U.S. Secret Service decals and the agency’s symbol, the five-point star.

Alan Etter, a spokesman for the D.C. fire department, could not confirm the existence of the new unit yesterday. He said the relationship between the fire department and the Secret Service is not formalized, adding that firefighters and equipment are called to the White House grounds as needed.

“I have no personal knowledge of this company,” Mr. Etter said. “We provide the service [the Secret Service] asks for. That has traditionally been the nature of our relationship with the federal government.”

It remains unclear what role, if any, the D.C. fire department will play in responding to emergency fire and medical calls at the White House in the future.

Mr. Etter said Engine 16 and Truck 3, stationed at 1018 13th St. NW, had been designated as the first unit to respond to an emergency at the White House since the company’s formation 100 years ago this month. The company’s motto — “First due to the White House” — appears on the unit’s apparatus and T-shirts.

Mr. Etter said D.C. Fire Chief Adrian H. Thompson has begun work to obtain security clearances for firefighters and emergency medical technicians.

“There have been discussions within the department to credential certain personnel who would be most likely to enter federal buildings,” he said.

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