- The Washington Times - Monday, January 1, 2007

Outgoing D.C. Fire Chief Adrian H. Thompson said the failed response to the emergency call for journalist David E. Rosenbaum was the low point of his 36-year career as a firefighter, but he also insisted that it is the part of his tenure as chief that is most misunderstood by the public.

“They’ve got the Rosenbaum case wrong,” Chief Thompson told The Washington Times in an interview last week. “The Rosenbaum case was an aberration, an aberration in terms of transfer times and an aberration in terms of what happened out there.”

Chief Thompson, 57, retired Friday. He will be replaced officially today when Adrian M. Fenty is sworn into office as mayor. During The Times interview, which took place in the final hours before his retirement, Chief Thompson called his 4 years as fire chief a success.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams named him to the post on an acting basis in July 2002, after two problem-filled years under Chief Ronnie Few.

“When I was asked if I would take it, I knew there were issues,” he said. “But I knew that I could at least come in and make a dent in the problems we had. I think I did that.”

Chief Thompson, a lifelong D.C. resident who served active duty with the Navy during the Vietnam War, brought steady leadership to the agency.

Nicknamed “the police” for his strict adherence to regulations, Chief Thompson restored discipline in the ranks and quickly replaced a fleet of firetrucks and ambulances that had fallen into disrepair. No stations were closed during his tenure and no firefighters were killed in the line of duty.

“That’s the most important thing,” he said, “protect the people we need to protect and get our guys home.”

His mandate was to resuscitate emergency medical services (EMS), a division troubled by tensions with firefighters because of pay and benefits disparities and a dwindling work force that reflects a nationwide shortage of paramedics.

Chief Thompson addressed the problem by aggressively cross-training the department’s firefighters and medical personnel under a long-stalled initiative that allowed specially trained members of the uniformed fire service and civilian EMS division to perform the duties of each specialty.

Civilian emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics were invited to join the fire department in what Chief Thompson said was a way to get them better benefits and opportunities for advancement.

Chief Thompson also radically changed the staffing model for ambulances, manning a growing proportion of the District’s 33 ambulances with firefighters trained as EMTs. To better use his most highly trained medics, he replaced the two-paramedic configuration on the 16 ambulances that respond to the most critical medical calls with one paramedic and one lesser-trained advanced EMT.

He put paramedic firefighters on firetrucks, which usually are the first responding vehicles to medical calls. After briefly reassigning the paramedics because of budget restrictions in 2002, Chief Thompson placed 18 paramedic engine companies in service.

The moves have reduced response times by more than three minutes, to about 13 minutes for all medical calls. Fire officials are getting advanced life-support (ALS) care to the most critical patients within eight minutes more than 85 percent of the time. That figure is up from about 70 percent of calls when Chief Thompson took over. The national standard is an eight-minute response time on 90 percent of all critical calls.

“When I first saw that ALS response times — eight minutes or less — hit 80 percent, which was about a year ago, I said, ‘This is finally working,’ ” he said.

Critics said the chief’s plans were based on fulfilling staffing quotas and reducing response times and that the quality of care diminished until an incident such as the Rosenbaum case was inevitable.

Mr. Rosenbaum, 63, was beaten and robbed as he walked near his home in Northwest on Jan. 6 last year. He died two days later. An inspector general’s report issued in June cited an “unacceptable chain of failure” by first responders.

Chief Thompson said the crew’s actions were “incomprehensible.” He said that after he had read the inspector general’s report, he went into his office alone, sat behind his desk and stared at the ceiling.

“I understood it from an operational standpoint, but I didn’t understand it from a human standpoint,” he said.

He added that he couldn’t imagine what the crew was thinking.

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