Three of five firefighters under investigation for failure to render aid to a dying man who collapsed across the street from their firehouse have gone unpunished in connection with the case, which shocked D.C. residents and officials and put the city’s troubled fire department in the national spotlight.
The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department on Thursday announced the result of trial boards for three of the five firefighters involved in the incident, saying one of the firefighters was found not guilty, another would receive a reprimand and that a third would be suspended. A rookie firefighter at the center of the case has yet to be charged and a lieutenant in charge of the fire house during the incident escaped punishment by retiring before a trial board could rule in her case.
The five firefighters failed to come to the aid of 77-year-old Medric “Cecil” Mills after he collapsed in a parking lot across the street from their Northeast D.C. firehouse in January. Mills, who suffered a heart attack, later died.
Interim Fire Chief Eugene Jones, who took over the agency in July after the retirement of Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe, said Thursday he was disappointed in the trial board’s ruling on the three firefighters and thought the personnel involved should have all received harsher penalties.
“Some of them should have been facing termination and in the end they are not,” said Chief Jones, urging a restructuring of the department’s disciplinary system as a way to expand the fire chief’s authority to dole out punishment.
Firefighters David Dennis, Garrett Murphy, and George Martin were all facing discipline for their actions on the day of the incident. While the fire department has pledged transparency in dealing with the incident and has named the firefighters in the past when referring to their trial boards, officials declined to identify which of the three were exonerated or found guilty of the neglect of duty charges.
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“I will not talk about the penalties given out to the firefighters,” Chief Jones said.
The chief also declined to say how long the suspension would last for the firefighter who received the punishment.
Internal charges are still pending against a rookie firefighter who was at the center of the case and “should be served fairly soon,” Chief Jones said.
Firefighter Remy Jones was still in his probationary period on the department at the time of the incident and will not face a trial board. Instead the chief can dole out whatever charges and punishment he deems necessary, even outside a 90-day window in which firefighters ordinarily must be charged with offenses.
Firefighter Jones was the first to speak with a person who sought help for Mills at the fire station. WTTG-TV first reported that internal affairs documents on the incident stated that Firefighter Jones admitted he did not know what to do in the event that someone came to the firehouse seeking aid, nor did he ring the bells at the fire station as is practice when there is an emergency at the station. Instead firefighter Jones requested assistance over the station’s intercom for an “urgent matter.”
Chief Jones said he believes the probationary firefighter is the “least culpable” of the five on duty that day because of his rookie status.
Lt. Kellene Davis, who was in charge of the fire station that day, retired before a trial board could rule on her case and dole out discipline that might have affected her rank or pension.
The trial board ultimately recommended that she be demoted, but Chief Jones said termination should have been on the table and wasn’t. He said fault for the incident lies with the officers in charge and those with the most experience who should have known better.
“I think the focus really should have been on her. She was the leader of the fire station,” he said.
An attorney for the Mills family criticized fire department’s handling of the debacle, including the decision to close the trial board hearings to the public.
“This is what happens when investigations are done in the dark with no transparency and when there is no accountability,” attorney Karen Evans said in a written statement. “We find it appalling that any one of the five fire fighters/EMTs in the fire station on January 25, 2014 could be found ‘not guilty,’ and that the ‘punishment’ handed down was a reprimand and a suspension for an unknown time period.”
Both Chief Jones and D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray — who at the time of the incident said he was “outraged” and pledged accountability — have pointed to the fire department’s trial board system as part of the problem in the department’s inability to hand down effective discipline and urged a change in the system. The current disciplinary system allows the fire chief to either agree with and keep a trial board’s punishment or to reduce the punishment. Chief Jones said he believes the fire chief should have the authority to dole out harsher punishment.
“Justice was not done today,” Mr. Gray said. “We owe it to Mr. Mills to fix a system that is clearly broken.”
Ed Smith, head of the D.C. firefighters union, said he’s open to working with Chief Jones to improve the disciplinary process and that the union had been in talks with management about altering the system even before Thursday’s announcement.
“Streamlining it and having a table of penalties that demand on a first, second, third offense this happens, would make sure the penalties are consistent across the board,” Mr. Smith said. “Both parties have to sit down at the table and come up with something reasonable.”
• Andrea Noble can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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