A REPORT DETAILING the failure to help an elderly man who suffered a heart attack outside a D.C. fire station has recommended disciplinary action against the firefighters who turned their backs and the emergency dispatchers who bungled the 911 call. Good that the city administration wants to hold people accountable. But if past cases are any indication, that’s unlikely to happen, thanks to a cumbersome disciplinary process so weighted in favor of public employees that it protects incompetence.
The devastating details surrounding the Jan. 25 case of Medric Cecil Mills, 77, who later died at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, were contained in the report of an internal investigation released Friday. Mr. Mills had collapsed across the street from a Northeast firehouse while running errands with his daughter. Bystanders ran to the station and were told no one could respond unless someone called 911 and an ambulance was formally dispatched.
The report by Paul A. Quander Jr., deputy mayor for public safety and justice, said five fire personnel were in the station and “all . . . were aware of a medical issue in which assistance was requested; however, none took any action to provide assistance.” Three sat in the kitchen and ignored urgent announcements from a probationary firefighter seeking guidance. One firefighter went to his car to get personal items and then retired to his bunk room with a book to study for a promotional exam. When assistance was finally dispatched, it was sent to an incorrect address more than two miles away. Only when a police officer flagged down a passing ambulance did Mr. Mills get aid.
Unspecified disciplinary proceedings have been instituted, but the city administration faces a steep climb. The four-member trial board will include two union members, and the decision must have a majority. The fire chief can adopt or reduce the penalty or dismiss the case, but he cannot increase the penalty. Then there are the ever-escalating layers of appeals that can lead to misguided decisions about who stays on the public payroll.
A case in point is that of the ambulance driver involved in another notorious case of shoddy care, that of retired New York Times reporter David E. Rosenbaum in 2006. Mr. Rosenbaum was assumed to be a drunk and not, as was the case, the victim of a vicious mugging. The ambulance driver, who bypassed the closest hospital so that she could do some personal errands, was fired but was eventually reinstated with full back pay.
The situation is not unique to the fire department. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier recently complained about the unwieldy process in testimony before the D.C. Council: “The current structure of termination appeals . . . has failed to serve the public safety interests of the Department, and in doing so, has failed District residents.” Among the officers the chief said she was ordered to take back was one who caught individuals urinating in an alley and made them take off their sweaters to wipe up the urine and then put the sweaters back on. Another officer stayed on the force after being arrested for ramming his wife’s car.
These cases involve a small minority of public employees, but they result in a culture of no consequences for mistakes and misconduct. It is time for a more rational system that can safeguard employee rights without surrendering the public interest.