Too many lives depend on D.C. firefighters and paramedics for dysfunction to continue

Petula Dvorak
Columnist March 3

Folks on Rhode Island Avenue loved their firefighters so much that they planted a memorial tree outside their firehouse to honor Louis Matthews, who died in 1999 battling flames in a grandmother’s basement.

Any time, day or night, at Engine 26, people would bring their problems.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

“It was a place for people to come, bang on the door when they needed help,” said Thomas N. Tippett, who led the D.C. fire department back then. “They helped the community, and the community rallied for them.”

Today? Folks on Rhode Island put up a new memorial next to Engine 26. But it was made of flowers and stuffed animals for 77-year-old Medric Cecil Mills, who died outside, ignored by firefighters who couldn’t bother to break protocol and help a man having a heart attack.

Tippett left the department 14 years ago, so you’d think he wouldn’t bother much with the political firestorm going on right now. But this new memorial boils his blood.

“I was taught by a fire chief a long time ago: That bum on the street? You treat him like he’s your father. That kid trapped in the fire? You treat that like it’s your kid,” Tippett said. “But this? And the way it was handled? It sends a wrong message to the community.”

I met Tippett in 1999, when the D.C. fire department was trying to figure out the puzzle that departments across the country were facing as the number of fires dropped dramatically nationwide. The number of fires went from about 3.2 million in 1977 to about 1.3 million in 2012, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Because of changing buildings, building codes, behavior and life, things don’t catch fire as much as they used to. But as the baby boomers age, calls for medical emergencies are going up.

In fiscal 2011, the D.C. department responded to just over 130,000 medical calls, but took on only 463 structural fires, according to its performance reports.

Now check this out: As of last summer, there were just 231 paramedics in the department of 2,130, according to a D.C. inspector general’s report. I was never great at math, but I think I see a problem.

Fire departments in Montgomery and Fairfax counties and other places across the country figured this out a long time ago. Some have everyone cross-trained in firefighting and paramedic care; others have two separate and robust forces, but give them equal pay and benefits.

In the District, we just keep fighting over it. And firefighters who just want to battle blazes are frustrated when they race through the city in their big rigs only to respond to diabetics feeling weak or old men with headaches.

And that’s led to alarming dysfunction within one of the most crucial organizations in the nation’s capital, one that hundreds of thousands of people depend upon. Rich or poor, senator or janitor, whether you live or just work in the District, the only thing between you and disaster may be the men and women of D.C.’s Fire and Emergency Services. Yet it’s a department roiling in turmoil and strife. A fire chief rarely lasts more than a couple of years. The fights between the unions and leaders are epic.

An ambulance on a White House call ran out of gas, two other ambulances caught fire and made for a viral photo op, a police officer had to wait 15 minutes for an ambulance after being in an accident in the spring, and a 71-year-old man died on New Year’s Day when he had a heart attack during an ambulance staffing shortage.

“Across the department, firefighters say they are over­worked and under­paid, and fear retaliation for speaking out about conditions that could jeopardize the public, according to interviews with current firefighters, higher-ups in the department and retired employees,” wrote Washington Post reporter Amy Brittain, in her investigation into the department.

In addition to juggling the medical calls and fire calls and a city population that’s surging, Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe has posted firetrucks in high-crime areas as deterrents, calling it “soft duty.”

Soft? As in, their turn-out coats are too soft to help if they get caught in gunfire they’re trying to deter? Are they going to use hoses to cool down a drive-by?

The department dodged a serious bullet when it became clear that ineptitude contributed to the death of retired New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum, who had been beaten in a robbery Jan. 6, 2006, near his home in upper Northwest Washington.

He was out for an evening walk after dinner when he was attacked. The ambulance drivers who scooped him up smelled wine on his breath and took him on a long, circuitous route to Howard University Hospital, where he languished for hours before he was treated. He died two days later from the head injuries.

The family, remarkably, didn’t sue the city. They refused to go for what certainly would’ve been a handsome and justifiable payout under the condition that the department follow the reforms recommended in a task force report on the case.

So far, that’s a mission that hasn’t been accomplished. D.C. Council member and mayoral candidate Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) has called for Ellerbe’s firing.

Ellerbe is a detail man, popping up at firehouses in surprise inspections, insisting on protocol and scrutiny. “I am ubiquitous,” he told Brittain.

Except what he’s missing is the big picture, and that doesn’t look so good.

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