- The Washington Times - Monday, June 23, 2014

The man set to take over as the District’s interim fire chief next month says he will continue the controversial practice of detailing firefighters to high-crime areas as a means to deter criminal activity.

Assistant Chief Eugene Jones said he has no problem with “soft posting” firefighters and will continue the strategy when he takes over for retiring Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe on July 2.

“It is an important strategy that is beneficial to the citizens,” Chief Jones said.

The practice has been criticized by firefighter and police unions, who say that placing unarmed firefighters in areas with high crime puts them harm’s way.

“It’s just dangerous. You wouldn’t have bunch of cops running into a fire,” said Fraternal Order of Police Chairman Delroy Burton.

The firefighters’ union points to an incident over the weekend in which gunshots sent a group of police and firefighters scrambling, as evidence that simply stationing a group of firefighters in an area will not stop crime.

Police and firefighters responded to the Carver-Langston neighborhood in Northeast around 4 a.m. Saturday for reports of a vehicle that had rammed several mailboxes. While on the scene, a police officer went to confront the suspected driver, and the man pulled out a handgun and opened fire, according to charging documents. Police later arrested Brian Anderson of Riverdale and charged him with assault with intent to kill.

No one was injured by the gunfire, but Dabney Hudson of the D.C. Firefighters Association said firefighters took cover in a nearby apartment or underneath trucks to dodge the bullets. Nine .40-caliber shells were recovered from the scene, court documents state.

The crew on the scene had been detailed to a soft posting position in the neighborhood earlier that night but was able to return to their firehouse, Trinidad’s “House of Pain,” before the call for the incident, Mr. Hudson said.

The fire department has continued to defend the practice, saying this incident was in no way related to soft posting.

“Anyone who asserts that this incident is an example of how soft posting should be stopped are either ill-advised, misinformed or not interested in facts,” department spokesman Tim Wilson said.

The union still hopes get a word in edgewise with Chief Jones. D.C. Firefighters Association president Ed Smith said it’s at the top of his list to discuss when he is able to hash out concerns withe the interim chief.

“We’ve always done community events and it’s import for us to be out in the community,” Mr. Smith said, describing previous assignments in which firetrucks were detailed to community events or swimming pools. “This is a designated high-crime area. It’s putting the members at risk.”

Among the concerns, not just with safety, is getting an explanation as to why the department has chosen to selectively detail firefighters.

Rumors have swirled over the reasoning for soft posting since the practice began in December, especially since it has been limited to just two fire trucks from the same firehouse in the Trinidad neighborhood.

From December through May, only crews working on Engine 10 and Truck 13 from the Trinidad neighborhood were assigned soft posting details. The assignments began after the Dec. 3 fatal police-involved shooting that killed 19-year-old Darius Murphy.

Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul A. Quander Jr. has defended the plan and said it was created in conjunction with the D.C. Council and the police department.

A Freedom of Information Act request seeking emails from Mr. Quander shows only a smattering of information about “soft posting” from December through February, and mostly included requests from reporters seeking information about the program. A handful of emails showed fire department officials writing Mr. Quander to confirm that units had been at their assigned locations in December.

In May, the fire department also began to detail Engine 30 and Truck 17 out to a shopping center at East Capitol Street and Benning Road in Southeast. At least one firefighter refused the assignment and may be charged with insubordination as a result.

Truck 13, which was the crew that dodged bullets early Saturday, was right back out on soft posting detail Saturday and Sunday night just blocks from the location of the shooting, Mr. Hudson said.

Even if firefighters on the trucks are shaken from the event, they have little choice but to head back out to the post again, Mr. Hudson said.

“If you refuse it then they are going to send you home on insubordination,” he said. “It’s a tough position to put them in.”

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