District officials said the conclusions by fire investigators do not represent the final results of a criminal probe that police expect will take some time. They also said the findings do not preclude the possibility of tampering intended to make the fires appear accidental.
Still, the reports, which were obtained by The Washington Post, provided fodder for the head of firefighters union Local 36, who took exception to the use of the word “untoward.” The president, Edward C. Smith, called the request for a police inquiry an underhanded way of accusing firefighters of sabotaging equipment during a vehement labor dispute.
“I think it was irresponsible for the deputy mayor to make those allegations,” Smith said. “I think the city needs to issue us a formal apology. I’m confident there was nothing done that was untoward.”
Keith St. Clair, a spokesman for Paul A. Quander Jr., the deputy mayor for public safety, said concerns remain about two fires having occurred in ambulances on opposite sides of the city on the same day. Quander, St. Clair said, “wants to know what the facts are” and wants a more thorough investigation than was done initially.
“We’re hoping this investigation shows that these fires were accidental,” St. Clair said.
The union and city have long sparred over equipment issues and slow response times, with each side blaming the other. But the relationship has deteriorated in recent weeks.
On Aug. 8, an ambulance assigned to President Obama’s motorcade ran out of diesel fuel on the White House lawn. City officials said the driver was negligent for failing to fill up the tank, and the union said the city had failed to heed warnings of a faulty fuel gauge.
Last week, District officials acknowledged that maintenance workers had placed aluminum signs in the engines of some ambulances as temporary heat shield because of overheating air-conditioning units. Fire officials ordered them removed after the firefighters union posted a picture on Twitter, and the officials issued a news release calling the repairs “unorthodox.”
Smith called it a prime example of what his members deal with on a daily basis, and he said breakdowns have delayed the response to medical emergencies. City officials counter that many delays, including one in which someone who had a heart attack died and another that stranded an injured police officer, were attributable to excessive absenteeism and dereliction of duty.