- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2005

Skyrocketing home prices are driving the District’s firefighters and police officers out of the city and beyond the surrounding counties, creating concern about swiftly mobilizing emergency teams during a large-scale emergency.

Chief Adrian H. Thompson of the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services acknowledges firefighters need to find affordable housing but made clear that the department has policies that require firefighters to return to the city for such an emergency.

“Our basic concern is people coming back,” he said.

According to a report issued last week by the National Association of Realtors, the average price of a home in the District last month exceeded $200,000 for the first time.

City officials reacted to the trend last year by eliminating a 49-year-old requirement that police and firefighters must live within a 25-mile radius of the U.S. Capitol.

“The only thing that did was let us get the best bang for our buck,” said Lt. Ray Sneed, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association. “You have to be concerned about affordable housing, especially for the young people.”

The change was part of the 2004 Omnibus Public Safety Agency Reform Amendment Act and acknowledges the special needs of firefighters, whose 24-hour shifts require them to be at work once every four days — or about eight times a month.

Council member Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat, said she included the rider to ensure “consistency with other D.C. career workers,” who do not have residency requirements.

In the Judiciary Committee report Mrs. Patterson prepared on the legislation, she said roads surrounding the District were not major interstate highways when the 1956 rule was enacted. For example, traveling from Baltimore to Washington took two hours in 1964, compared with 45 minutes today, she said.

Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey agrees with the change.

“Once you let people live outside the city, whether it’s a block or 25 miles, you don’t have residency,” he said. “I don’t think you have to live in the District to be effective in protecting the city.”

Chief Ramsey said the change also has helped in recruiting workers — at a time when the department is struggling to fulfill a mandate of having 3,800 officers.

“By expanding outward, it makes that pool even richer,” he said.

The residency issue is a hot political topic in other big cities, too.

• In Boston, the police union has refused to endorse any candidate in the upcoming mayoral election who does not make a firm commitment to oppose the residency rule.

• In Pittsburgh, legislators are considering a proposal to relax the rule. A state law prohibits the police union from even mentioning the rule when negotiating contracts for city officers.

• In New Orleans, a council member introduced legislation that would relax the rule. Mayor Ray Nagin said earlier this month that he would sign the bill, if passed.

• In St. Louis, the board of police commissioners this month relaxed the rule by allowing police officers with seven years’ experience to live within an hour of the patrol station where they work. Firefighters still must live in the city.

City officials could not provide numbers about how many police and firefighters are living outside the District.

However, Lt. Sneed said housing costs and firefighters living further away have not significantly changed the department.

“It has no adverse impact on our ability to do the job or our readiness to do the job,” he said.

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