Navy officers, firefighters say they were understaffed at Navy Yard shooting

September 20, 2013

The District’s delegate to Congress is calling for an investigation into staffing and failures of emergency radios used by some Navy police and firefighters who were among the first to respond to Monday’s mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard.

Union leaders said the responders were unable to talk to their counterparts from the District, and could not get signals from inside Building 197 where a lone gunman fatally shot 12 people before he was killed by police.

Members of the Naval District Washington police force said seven officers — down from about 12 in recent years — were on the base in Southeast Washington when the shooting occurred and were delayed getting to the scene because they had to manually close the gates.

“If what’s being said is true, it’s shocking,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said. She noted complaints have been made about radio deficiencies of some federal agencies for years. “Some of their radios are primitive.” Norton called for an investigation into the complaints and she blamed part of the problems on budget cuts due to sequestration.

The problems appear to be limited to the police and fire forces assigned to Naval District Washington, which covers bases in the District, Maryland and Virginia, including the Patuxent River Naval Air Station and the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Read eyewitness accounts from the Navy Yard shooting.

Edward Zeigler, a spokesman for Naval District Washington, declined an interview request and issued a statement saying the installation’s “focus remains on healing as a Navy family and transitioning to normal operations at the Washington Navy Yard. The Secretary of the Navy has ordered a review of physical security and we will support it fully.

The chiefs for the D.C. and U.S. Park police departments, along with union representatives, said the complex coordination of local and federal agencies worked smoothly, with no significant issues with communication.

Union leaders said problems occurred with the first responding police officers from the Naval District. Anthony Meely, president of the labor committee and a sergeant on the force, said that there were officers on the base when the shooting occurred and that the chief was the first to go into the building. He called the staffing insufficient.

Gregory Russell, president of the National Capital Federal Fire Fighter’s union, said his firefighters and paramedics encountered problems from the start, when old batteries started dying.

He said the incident commander could not reach paramedics once they were inside the building and had to send a messenger outside to use the radio and then return with the response. They also borrowed radios from D.C. firefighters.

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