Retired D.C. fire lieutenant defends her actions in death of man outside fire station


Former D.C. Fire Lt. Kellene Davis is accused of failing to help Medric Mills, who died in January after collapsing across the street from a firehouse in northeast D.C.. Davis was highest-ranking firefighter there at the time. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The veteran D.C. fire lieutenant who retired after being accused of failing to help a dying man outside her station in January said Thursday that help had arrived by the time she first knew someone was in distress.

The sequence contradicts a timeline provided by the fire department that indicates Kellene Davis did not react quickly when a colleague told her that a man had fallen across the street from the station on Rhode Island Avenue in Northeast Washington’s Brookland neighborhood.

Davis, in her first interview since 77-year-old Medric “Cecil” Mills Jr. died of a heart attack Jan. 25, also said she had no idea that at least two people had banged on the firehouse doors seeking help and had been turned away by a trainee who told them, incorrectly, that nothing could be done until they called 911.

Davis, 51, retired in April, after the start of a closed disciplinary hearing in connection with the incident but before a decision was announced. She said she wanted to counter the perception that she was a callous firefighter who allowed a man to die and then escaped punishment with a $70,000-a-year pension. But in many instances, her explanations only complicated the understanding of what happened that afternoon.

“I don’t want people that don’t know me to think that that’s the way I am,” Davis, a 28-year member of the department, said during the interview. She spoke in quiet, measured tones, her short statements trailing off. Her attorney, Donna Rucker, dominated the conversation and often prompted her. “She is not someone who knew there was a citizen in need or chose to or ignored calls for help,” Rucker said.

Three other firefighters who were at the firehouse during the incident have been charged administratively with misconduct and are scheduled to go before separate disciplinary hearings next week, which will probably be closed to the pubic despite city officials’ promises that the process would be transparent. The District has declined to provide a transcript of Davis’s two-day hearing.

An attorney for the Mills family declined to comment.

The Mills case added to the problems of a fire department that was described as having too few paramedics, being too slow on emergency calls and operating a fleet of vehicles in disarray. District officials, including the mayor and deputy mayor for public safety, repeatedly condemned the handling of the Mills case.

On the day Mills died, D.C. fire officials said at least two people banged on the firehouse door about 2:45 p.m. A cadet stationed there later told officials that he looked for Davis and when he couldn’t find her he called her on a public address system. In her interview, Davis said she didn’t hear the announcement but would have heard the bell had the cadet rang it, in keeping with department protocol. It is not clear whether the intercom was working in her office.

Davis said she had no idea people were trying to find her or that a man had fallen across the street until a firefighter came into her office and told her. Davis asked him for the exact address, which she said “was just a normal reflex” and so she could call the location into her dispatch center. She said the firefighter left the office and walked directly to the bay doors, where he saw police and other firefighters tending to Mills.

“Had I walked right behind him, I would have already discovered that help was on the scene,” Davis said.

Rucker added, “Her asking for an address didn’t delay in getting help and providing assistance to Mr. Mills.” The attorney said that it has been determined that the firefighter walked to the bay door and saw other emergency workers at 2:53 p.m.

But the fire department report says that after Davis asked for the exact address, the firefighter left and did not return. Instead, the report says, he went to the kitchen and told two other firefighters that the cadet “had a man down across the street” and “I let the lieutenant know we should be going on the run.”

Fire officials declined to comment on Davis’s explanations.

The report says that firefighter, a temporary transfer from another station, then went to his car, retrieved some books and retired to his bunk to study for a promotional exam. The report says that Davis found him “lying in bed” and that he told her that he had learned firefighters from other stations had been dispatched. But those firefighters had been sent to the wrong address.

The report says that by the time Davis went outside, an ambulance crew flagged down by a D.C. police officer was giving aid. That occurred at 2:55 p.m., two minutes later than Rucker said Davis had looked outside.

There were other problems that day, including the dispatch of the crew from the other station to the wrong address. There were also questions about the response to a computer that three times recommended dispatching Davis’s Truck 15 to help Mills. The computer was overruled at the dispatch center because the emergency called for an advanced life support paramedic and Truck 15’s staff was trained only in basic life support.

Neither Rucker nor Davis would comment on the actions of other firefighters, citing the pending disciplinary hearings. Rucker said her client did not want to assess blame but wanted to tell her side of the story. About the Mills family, Davis said “there are no words to describe the feelings of their loss.”

Davis, who has three children, said she requested retirement — she will get 70 percent of her annual $100,000 salary — shortly after Mills died “because of the media and the fire department.”

She added: “I was villainized by both. Just wanted to get away.”

Asked why she became a firefighter, Davis said, “To help people.”

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