- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2010

The former D.C. fire chief tasked with merging his firefighting and emergency medical services divisions to improve a beleaguered ambulance service now says the department should be divided, in large part because the “culture” of the historically white fire service makes employees indifferent to treating needy city residents.

Adrian H. Thompson, who led the department from July 2002 through December 2006 and took the initial steps to merge the responsibilities of the department’s civilian EMS work force with its uniformed firefighters, said he no longer thinks the plan can work.

“It’s not working,” Mr. Thompson said in an interview with The Washington Times. “It’s a cultural issue. They’re not going to change the culture of this department.”

The former chief, who is black, said white firefighters with generational ties to the department largely have been less accepting of the job’s evolving responsibilities, particularly an increased emphasis in recent decades on providing pre-hospital care.

“They want to be firefighters and firefighters only,” he said, adding that black firefighters have entered the department in significant numbers in only the past 20 or 30 years and largely have been more open to other responsibilities if it meant securing a job.

The former chief, who has rarely spoken publicly since his retirement and now frequently spends his days delivering Meals on Wheels, said black and needy D.C. residents continue to be marginalized and that little progress has been made in healing the city’s racial divide.

He made the comments - and the charge of a “racial component” weighing over the D.C. fire service - in response to a case in which a paramedic is being investigated for inappropriately declining to transport a 2-year-old child last month after a 911 call complaining the child had trouble breathing. A second unit later transported the child, who died.

City officials on Thursday said an investigation had been initiated into whether criminal conduct or negligence was involved on the part of the senior paramedic, who is black.

Since that incident, reports have surfaced of another call in December in which a Northwest woman says she complained of breathing problems and was denied transport by a medical crew who did not think anything was wrong with her. The woman called 911 a second time and was transported to a hospital, where she says she spent a week in intensive care.

In the latter case, Mr. Thompson said the woman, who was black, seemed to have been treated like “a non-entity, a nobody” by responding paramedics.

“Black people have no recourse but to accept what they say and move on,” Mr. Thompson said, adding that it remains “intimidating” for black city residents to have a non-minority public official in their homes.

The tenure of Mr. Thompson, a D.C. native who served in the fire department for 36 years, was noteworthy for restoring stability to an agency whose equipment, facilities and morale had been left in shambles by his predecessor, Ronnie Few.

But under his watch was one of the most notable incidents in the department’s recent history: the failed response to a January 2006 medical call involving journalist David E. Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum, 63, was beaten and robbed in his Northwest neighborhood and died two days later.

An investigation found that a neglectful, botched emergency response had contributed to Rosenbaum’s death after emergency medical personnel mistakenly presumed he was drunk.

Mr. Thompson contrasted the response in the recent cases to the public outcry in the Rosenbaum case and said race played a role.

“The issue was not about EMS,” Mr. Thompson said. “It was about a black fire chief telling them that nothing went wrong.”

Kenneth Lyons, head of the union that represents the city’s paramedics and a frequent nemesis for Mr. Thompson during his time as chief, has long held that firefighters consider EMS to be a “subservient service” and that paramedics have been given fewer resources to do their jobs.

“I will agree with Chief Thompson that there is a racial component, but I don’t think that’s the sole reason EMS has failed here,” he said.

Deputy Chief Kenneth Crosswhite, a spokesman for Chief Dennis L. Rubin, who is white, called Mr. Thompson’s conclusions “totally ludicrous.” He estimated that the department has about 45 percent non-minority employees and 55 percent minority employees.

“For someone to make an assertion like that is totally, totally out of touch with today’s reality,” he said. “Leadership starts at the top. If he had that notion during his tenure, he should have solved the problem.”

Asked why he pursued the plan to merge the departments, which involved cross-training paramedics as firefighters, posting them on fire engines and stationing firefighters trained as emergency medical technicians on city ambulances, Mr. Thompson said he thought he could take the EMS program in a “new direction.”

But he said that since his departure, he had watched an April 2008 incident in which firefighters responded to the wrong address and gave up looking for a 35-year-old man who had a seizure on a Northeast street. The crew was sent back to the address and found the man after a roughly 10-minute delay. The man died.

He also cited a December 2008 case in which a Northeast man died after calling 911 for chest pains and having a paramedic tell him he was likely suffering from acid reflux.

Mr. Thompson, 61, also took issue with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who, he said, often criticized former Mayor Anthony A. Williams on issues that included emergency medical services but has done little to help the city’s needy residents.

Mr. Fenty famously pledged in 2006 to separate fire and emergency medical services but backtracked on the pledge after he was elected. Poll numbers show Mr. Fenty’s popularity has eroded among black city residents, with a majority saying they disapprove of his job performance.

Mr. Thompson, who said he grew up “dirt poor” in the Northeast neighborhood of Ivy City, is retired and lives in Southeast Washington - an area that typically has the city’s highest rates of crime and unemployment.

“I can live anywhere I want to live. I live here because I love this city,” he said.

• Matthew Cella can be reached at mcella@washingtontimes.com.

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