Nearly one-third of D.C. firefighters called in sick New Year’s Eve

January 4, 2013

Nearly a third of all District firefighters scheduled to work New Year’s Eve called in sick, leaving the city short-staffed in emergency care on one of the busiest nights of the year.

“We had to scramble,” said Paul A. Quander Jr., D.C.’s deputy mayor overseeing public safety. He confirmed reports that firefighters took a stabbing victim to a hospital on the back of a firetruck.

Quander said some of the city’s 39 basic life- and advanced life-support vehicles sat idle in fire stations because there wasn’t enough personnel to staff them. The firefighters’ absences were first reported Thursday by WTTG (Channel 5).

Prince George’s County sent help on two calls — an accident with people trapped and a person suffering a heart attack, both in Southeast. The heart attack victim died.

Two high-ranking City Hall officials said D.C. that paramedics eventually showed up for the heart-attack call but that the patient was already dead. The officials described the heart attack as massive and said there was little chance at reviving the person. Response times were not available.

Quander said the unusually high number of firefighters calling in sick was being investigated. “I expect people who work to come into work,” Quander said. “I expect people with a job to do, to do their job. Nothing else is acceptable.”

Quander said that typically 20 to 30 firefighters call in sick each night; the city is usually staffed with about 340 firefighters. The deputy mayor said 97 firefighters called in sick Monday. He said that on Tuesday, in which workers get holiday pay, just 20 firefighters called out.

Ed Smith, the president of the union that represents firefighters, said on Friday that fewer than 90 firefighters, out of 440 scheduled to work that day, were absent. He said half had to go to the Police and Fire Clinic and be seen by a doctor. Others did not have to go the clinic; a provision in their contract allows them to call out sick once every four months without getting a note from a doctor. Smith said many were on long-term sick leave.

Smith said the reason for the high number of absences wasn’t known, but he called the situation predictable.

The union head said that, “operationally, the city was a disaster with 13 transport units down overnight and long waits on the cold sidewalk for a transport unit.”

Earlier firefighters had been denied the benefit of extra pay and an extra day off afforded to other city employees.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said in a statement that he spoke Friday with the mayor, fire chief and the head of the union representing firefighters.

“I told each of them that this is an issue that must be resolved and never repeated,” said Wells, the new chair of the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety. “Whatever personnel and management issues may exist, the safety of the residents of the District of Columbia are non-negotiable.”

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