- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2006

D.C. fire officials plan to shut down engine companies for 12-hour shifts when their vehicles need preventive maintenance and assign their crews to other stations to stem overtime costs.

The new policy, which critics say is a thinly veiled attempt to institute rotating firehouse closures, would mean that fire and medical emergencies will be handled by personnel responding from a greater distance during the busy summer months.

“Preventative maintenance has to be done,” said Alan Etter, a spokesman for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. “This is an operational issue. We are trying to be frugal with the public’s money.”

Meanwhile, D.C. government officials found $175,000 to cover the costs of recertifying 157 emergency medical technicians (EMTs) whose licenses will expire before the start of the fiscal year in October.

The Washington Times reported yesterday that fire officials had canceled refresher classes for EMTs because the fire department had run out of money for the rest of the fiscal year.

“It’s money that’s being rechanneled by the deputy mayor’s office,” Mr. Etter said.

Classes are expected to resume Monday.

Lt. Ray Sneed, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association, criticized the budget-driven decisions as “bad management” on the part of Fire Chief Adrian H. Thompson and his top assistants.

“There is no doubt in my mind that this is nothing but the rotating closure of companies, and it’s being done to save money, period,” Lt. Sneed said. “We’ve fought this battle before. They’re just camouflaging it now.”

The proposal is identical to an initiative briefly instituted by Fire Chief Ronnie Few in June 2001, when the department was facing a $1.3 million operating budget deficit.

“Is it going to diminish fire protection? Of course it is,” Lt. Sneed said. “With it as hot as it is now and as many calls for service as we have, we should never close a company down.”

Fire officials can save money by closing engine companies and using the firefighters in the closed company to fill vacancies by firefighters who are sick, on vacation or suspended without having to pay overtime.

Assistant Fire Chief Douglas L. Smith issued the order calling for the station closures July 25. It was to take effect immediately “due to the projected overtime deficit.”

The same order also instructed supervisors to deny last-minute leave requests.

Mr. Etter acknowledged that the firefighting crews whose vehicles are undergoing preventive maintenance would be used to curb overtime costs stemming from vacancies in other firehouses, but he rebutted Lt. Sneed’s assertion that the order was issued to give officials a mechanism for closing companies.

“This is absolutely not firehouse roulette,” Mr. Etter said. “These individuals are being paid anyway. There is no sense in spending overtime to fill these vacancies.”

If a vehicle is called to the fleet maintenance division for preventive maintenance, the company usually is put out of service for as long as it takes to perform the work.

Although the fire department is flush with reserve vehicles, Mr. Etter said, a company cannot be given a reserve vehicle because crews must operate with four persons, and one member of the crew must stay with the vehicle while the work is performed.

Lt. Sneed pointed out that the wording of the order specifies that when a vehicle is sent to fleet maintenance, officials will know that “there are four employees that can be deployed to other units for the first half of the 24-hour tour.”

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