Wednesday, August 21, 2013

There is a huge scandal going on in the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, and nobody is really aware of it.

Washington, D.C., was founded in 1789, but it really wasn't until about 1793 that buildings and streets began to appear. At first, buildings were hundreds of feet away from one another, even where they were on the same street. In the early days of the city, volunteer fire departments provided the firefighting needs of the city. There were no city-provided hospitals or emergency medical services (EMS). You got taken home, and you called a doctor. End of story. These volunteer fire departments, however, often competed with one another for fame and donations. You might get four or five of them showing up to a fire at a rich man's home, while five or six homes of the poor burned. When they showed up, they'd fight -- with fists and rocks -- to see who got to put up a ladder, who got to pump water, who got to man the hoses. It was like watching the Three Stooges fight a fire.

Finally, in 1864 Congress passed a law authorizing a paid fire department. (That's after the U.S. Capitol building almost burned down in 1858, but I digress...) The law was finally implemented on September 23, 1871. Originally a combination of paid and volunteer firefighters, by 1900 the DCFD was a full-time, all-paid force with 14 engines, four ladder trucks, and two foam chemical trucks.

The DCFD was incredibly racist. I mean it: It was racially segregated until the 1960s, and no blacks were permitted to join. When blacks were finally accepted in the department, there was deep racial tension. The DCFD is a "generational" department, in which sons follow fathers follow grandfathers follow great-grandfathers into the firefighting service. To many racist whites, blacks were animals and that's it. To other whites, the arrival of blacks meant that sons would be denied a place in the department's ranks. Some white firefighters honestly believed that racism had denied blacks the culture, work ethos, education, and intelligence to be a firefighter, and that it would be decades before blacks gained what would be needed to be a firefighter. It was ugly. African American firefighters were racially harassed and taunted (and there were incidents of violence that included beatings, stabbings, and sexual molestation), denied promotions, subject to racial taunts and insults, denied training, and more. Blacks had to buy their own equipment for years, since whites would not use facemasks or oxygen tanks or coats "worn by a darkie". Much of this was beginning to change by the 1980s, as racial discrimination lawsuits against the department were rampant -- and changing things. But white flight from the city after the 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. riots also caused a number of white firefighters to leave the department. Suddenly, the department was majority-black, and things began changing even faster.

The first emergency room in D.C. didn't open until 1880, when the Central Dispensary Hospital opened one. The first ambulance in city came in 1888, when Alexander Graham Bell donated one to Garfield Memorial Hospital. Ambulances proved wildly popular with the public, and by 1892 the Metropolitan Police Department had several. By 1910, nearly all hospitals in the city had an emergency room, although most of these were only open part-time. Central Dispensary Hospital (downtown near the White House) and Eastern Dispensary Hospital (near the Capitol) were the primary emergency care providers, and were open most of the time. By 1924, the City Health Department was running an ambulance service as well.

In 1925, the D.C. Fire Department added its first ambulance. The DCFD had formed a "rescue squad" to assist firefighters injured in blazes, which was pretty common back then. Over time, hopsitals began callong on the DCFD ambulance for assistance when their own ambulance services were too busy. Ambulance service quickly caught on with the public, and volunteer ambulance services were organized in several parts of the city in the 1930s.

World War II brought a host of changes. Men left to join the military, leaving the ambulance services incredibly short-staffed. Yet, D.C.'s population tripled in the early part of the war, and the need for a centralized ambulance dispatch service became acute. In 1943, the city organized an Ambulance Control Board in the DCFD. Tied to the fire alarm dispatch center, most of the hospital ambulances were incorporated into the new city-run system. All ambulances are outfitted with radios (some had gotten them as early as 1940), and in 1957 the public ambulance service is formally transferred to the District of Columbia Fire Department.

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By 2000, the D.C. fire and emergency medical services (EMS) departments had 33 engine companies, 16 truck companies, three rescue squad trucks, and two fire boats. At least five vehicles a day were tied up serving the President of the United States. The department had a $140 million a year budget and 1,900 employees -- which included about 1,400 firefighters, paramedics, and emergency medical technicians (EMTs). It was a strictly "non-civilian" department. That meant that everyone was trained to be a firefighter. Some firefighters got trained to be paramedics -- able to provide the best emergency care possible, and detailed specifically to ambulance duty. The majority of EMS personnel, however, were trained as emergency medical technicians (EMTs). EMTs could provide basic but not high-quality care, although they too were assigned solely to the EMS division and not asked to fight fires any more.

But the department was troubled. Training levels were low, and customer service poor. The city's fleet was aging and in constant repair. So few fire engines were available for duty that several fire stations were closed because they had no equipment to fight fires. Despite the delivery of a few trucks and engines in 2000, the department still needed $7 million to replace old vehicles.

Two scandals were also hurting the department. The city was forced to pay $1.75 million to settle a lawsuit by the family of a transgender individual after firefighters ridiculed the person rather than treating her after after a 1995 automobile accident. The individual's death led to allegations by D.C. large LGBT population of widespread homophobia within the department. D.C. fire department radio equipment did not work on the same frequencies as the Washington Metro, and for years fire firefighters' radios had also not worked in the Metro tunnel system. The public also learned that the fire department was encouraging wealthy, mostly white, citizens in upper Northwest to call the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad for emergency medical services instead of serving the area with its own ambulances (which took much longer to respond). Members of the D.C. City Council criticized the pact for giving wealthy residents more service than poorer ones.

Turbulence under Few

On July 10, 2000, Ronnie Few took over at Fire Chief in charge of the D.C. Fire Department. Few replaced Chief Don Edwards, who was fired after it was found that he lived in Maryland in contravention of a D.C. law which required cabinet-level city officials to live in the District of Columbia. Few was hired over Acting Fire Chief Thomas N. Tippett, a highly popular career firefighter and former firefighter's union official. Few was the fourth fire chief or acting fire chief in 18 months.

The department had serious problems: The dispatching system could not identify the exact location of structures like the United States Capitol or the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, dispatchers sent crews to the wrong locations or in the wrong direction, fire crews didn't know how to use life-saving emergency equiipment such as defibrillators, injuries to civilians during fires were on the increase, department vehicles were increasing having vehicular accidents while responding to calls, and ambulances took twice as long to respond to calls (11 minutes and 21 seconds) than the national average. The fire training academy was in serious disrepair, trainees were found extensively cheating on tests, there were equipment and employee shortages, and equipment was old and in disrepair. Three firefighters died in 1999 in two months, creating a deep morale problem. (Prior to the incidents, just a single firefighter had died in 11 years.) He had little experience overseeing the provision of emergency medical care, although 80 percent of calls in D.C. were of that nature. Few was also only the second fire chief hired from outside the department, and had extremely poor relations with the firefighter's union.

The grooming policy controversy

Few sparked a long-simmering legal problem for the department in March 2001 when he began implementing a never-enforced 1977 policy requiring all DCFEMS personnel to have short hair and short-trimmed beards. Three firefighters were suspended and a number of others threatened with suspension for refusing to adhere to the policy. Chief Few claimed firefighters were unable to wear their helmets or poperly seal their safety masks due to over-long hair. However, on June 21, 2001, James Robertson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia imposed a temporary injunction against the department, preventing it from applying the short-hair policy to those individuals (such as Rastafarians or Muslims) who wore long hair or beards for religious purposes. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 clearly gave employers the right to enforce grooming policies over religious objection -- but only if the employer could prove a safety issue was involved. DCFD had not provided that proof in court. Still, Judge Robertson's ruling only delayed a final dispostion regarding the policy, however, and appeals were made.

A May 2001 performance report showed that the D.C. fire department was deteriorating rapidly under Few's leadership. Halfway through the budget year, Few met only one of four major goals (filling 120 firefighter vacancies). The number of injuries to firefighters and civilian injuries and deaths had far outstripped the year's objectives, and building inspections were far below the expected level. Ambulances were supposed to reach patients 90 percent of the time within eight minutes. Few changed this to 70 percent without explanation, and still the department could not reach the goal. The department also manipulated data (for example, incorporating paramedic-equipped fire companies) in an attempt to improve the response times.

The haz-mat training controversy

A month after a train derailment and fire in a tunnel near Baltimore and just two weeks prior to the September 11 attacks, the Washington Times revealed that internal DCFEMS documents showed the department "woefully unprepared" to handle a hazardous materials (or "haz-mat") spill or a chemical or biological attack. Firefighters and emergency medical personnal were not trained to recognize hazards or contain them, and had not conducted training in the worst sort of haz-mat incident in more than two years. Few pledged in October 2001 to create additional haz-mat response capability by staffing additional haz-mat vehicles with lesser-trained staff as an interim measure. He also said the department would train the appropriate personnel. In December 2001, the Marasco Newton Group, an independent auditor, reported that the department's haz-mat unit "needs improvement" or "needs significant improvement" in 10 critical areas analyzed, and that outside agencies had deep concern about the unit. The report concluded the unit was poorly staffed, poorly trained, and not competent. At a congressional hearing on the report, held in April 2002, Few asserted the report did not reflect the changes made since December, and that even more changes would be made in the next fiscal year.

Equipment failures

In August 2001, the Washington Times reported that the D.C. fire department's new $5.3 million radio system was so weak that "dead zones" existed in almost 50 locations, including such critical areas as the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police Department, the Harry S Truman Building (headquaters of the United States Department of State), the J. Edgar Hoover Building (headquarters of the FBI), the MCI Center (the city's main basketball and hockey arena), and Union Station. Firefighters' personal radios often could not communicate with headquarters or one another. Eight months' of complaints by firefighters led to no improvement. By January 2002, the problem still had not been corrected. Few said the city had to wait until $46.2 million in federal anti-terrorism funds were disbursed before the system could be fixed.

That same month, the public also learned that the DCFEMS' new computerized dispatch system was also failing. The system sent ambulances and fire trucks to the wrong location or to locations outside their assigned zone, failed to dispatch the nearest vehicle, or sent trucks to fires in the wrong order. Occasionally, the system attempted to dispatch a vehicle alreaedy assigned to an emergency while ignoring available vehicles. Front-line staff complained they received little training prior to the system's activation in June 2001, and little improvement had occurred in the intervening two months.

A new report in January 2002 revealed that Few had ordered no new firefighting or emergency services vehicles in the past 18 months, and that the city's fleet was quickly approaching decrepitude. A third of all pumper trucks were out of service due to ill-repair and age, and the city was patching up 15-year-old vehicles (which were due to have been scrapped four years ago) to fight fires. Not a single pumper could be held in reserve to fight major fires due to the lack of vehicles. In one case, the city pressed a fire academy trainer into service because it ran out of pumpers. (Reserve pumpers had fallen to 11 in 2002 from 13 in July 2000, five fewer than required.) The department was also short three of the eight ladder trucks required for reserves. Few blamed city officials for not releasing the $1.8 million to buy six new pumpers, even though he spent $32,000 to purchase a new command vehicle and an undisclosed sum to buy himself and other commanders 14 new cars. The report also showed that fire truck drivers were inadequately trained and poorly supervised, and were having too many accidents. Because of the lack of reserve vehicles, drivers also continued to operate vehicles even though they should have turned them in for repair. This worsened the repair issues when the vehicle failed. Although Few ordered the six pumpers by June 2002, there were still too few trucks in reserve.

Hiring and promotion scandals

In November 2001, the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance and the D.C. government's inspector general began Few for failing to disclose his relationship with a consultant the department had hired. Carl Holmes was hired by Few and Assistant Chief Gary Garland on a part-time basis at $1,800 a day. Few had worked for Holmes, and Few did not reveal his friendship with him as required by law. The following month, investigators discovered two more no-bid contracts awarded to Holmes.

In March 2002, Mayor Anthony A. Williams announced an investigation into two assistant chiefs and a deputy chief who may have been improperly hired by Few. Williams said Assistant Chief Marcus Anderson, Assistant Chief Gary Garland, and Deputy Chief Bruce Cowan falsied their résumés by claiming high-level jobs they did not hold and listing certification and educational credentials they never earned. Although Few had significantly raised department morale in August 2000 by reversing a number of transfers (viewed as punitive by the rank and file) ordered by former interim Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe, But the hiring of Anderson, Garland, and Cowan deeply undercut morale again. "The people [Few] promoted were not the kind of guys that got things done," one battalion chief said. "I think the odds of an insider getting things done ... are probably better."

These personnel scandals deepened in April when the D.C. City Council revealed it failed to identify inaccuracies on Few's résumé, submitted in 2000. The résumé incorrectly listed a college degree Few did not earn, and an honor ("1998 Fire Chief of the Year" by the International Association of Fire Fighters) he did not receive. Members of the District of Columbia Financial Control Board, which hired Few, said they might have vetoed his employment had they known about the inaccuracies. Few was also accused of misleading Congress by implying that he was a certified paramedic when he was not. Few blamed the mayor's office for submitting an incorrect résumé. A few days later, an internal departmental report found that Anderson, Cowan, and Garland failed to meet basic performance goals, and departmental performance had actually declined under them. Under Anderson, ambulances met their arrival-time goals only 41.6 percent of the time, down from 50.2 percent of the time a year earlier. (The national standard is 90 percent, and the city's goal was 80 percent.) The average time for an ambulance to arrive after a patient's call was 15.5 minutes. Under Garland, the emergency fleet continued to deteriorate as well. Not a single new fire engine had been ordered since October 2000, and the average age of engines in reserve was 15 years (nearly 50 percent higher than the 11-year lifespan of the vehicles). Although Garland's goal was to buy four engines in 2001 and six in 2002, only a single small "brush truck". Cowan, who supervised the city's building inspection program, was on track to inspect 3,243, buildings, far short of the goal of 5,980 inspections.

On April 26, 2002, disciplinary action was taken against Anderson, Cowan, and Garland. Five days later, the Washington Times revealed that Few was under investigation for previous actions at his old workplaces in East Point, Georgia, and Augusta, Georgia, for repeatedly violating hiring and promotions policies. In addition, Few violated D.C. law in authorizing eight merit-based promotions that had not been earned. Furthermore, the D.C. fire department held its first merit-based promotion testing in 22 months in April 2002.

Few's resignation

DCFEMS had a budget of about $120 million in spring 2002, $74 million of which went to firefighting and $22 million to emergency medical services. The remaining $24 million went to administration, administrative support, communications, and training. The agency had 1,350 firefighters, 390 paramedics and EMTs, and 200 communications and support personnel.

By the end of May 2002, the D.C. fire and emergency medical services department was in deep turmoil once again. The Washington Times called is a "crisis in management that has left the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department with crumbling stations, aging vehicles, faulty radios, inadequate training and flagging morale among its 1,900-plus members." There was tension between firefighters (who had better pay and benefits) and emergency medical services personnel; turnover among low-paid paramedics left fire companies understaffed; low pay made it difficult to recruit new paramedics; the "dead zones" in the new radio system were still not fixed after two years; the city installed four radio antenna towers instead of the 19 towers required; some firefighters were using vehicles that were due to be scrapped four years ago; there were so few reserve vehicles that on some days there was no reserve; fire stations had leaking plumbing and roofts, and outdated and ill-repaired electrical wiring; firefighter vacancy rates had not improved in two years, creating $2 million in overtime costs. The entire communications system failed for 10 and a half hours after three of the system's four towers suffered rain and lightning damage during a storm. Unqualified cadets were being allowed to graduate from an affirmative action firefighter training academy. As many as two-thirds of the cadets in the program lacked emotional maturity, had discipline problems (one actually shot another), failed to show up for class, or failed required portions of the course. Training for veteran firefighters was so inadequate that the best-trained firefighters in D.C. were ones who got training by working part-time for all-volunteer fire departments near the District of Columbia.

Few resigned effective July 31, 2002. The Washington Times said Few left behind "an agency whose equipment, facilities and morale had been left in shambles".

(more to come.....................)

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