“Grave concerns” for the safety of its members could lead the D.C. Fire Fighters Association Local 36 to file a grievance with the Public Employee Relations Board, following Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s (D) decision to use unarmed firefighters to combat crime in the Trinidad neighborhood in Northeast. The deployment occurred after three recent shootings.
“They are playing a game of odds,” Edward Smith, the association’s president, told me. The assignment of the firefighters, first reported by WTTG-TV (Fox 5), has to rank among the most ridiculous decisions ever by a municipal executive. It poses risks to workers, misuses valuable taxpayer-funded resources and expands the government’s potential liability.
D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D), in whose Ward 5 Trinidad is located, told me he asked Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul Quander Jr. during a meeting last month to develop a more aggressive strategy to deal with the spate of violence in Trinidad. McDuffie, who is running for reelection, was a public safety adviser to Mayor Gray; since joining the council, he has worked well with the administration and is perceived as a Gray ally. So, lickety-split, firefighters were sent in their truck to sit on a street corner half the night with the engine idling.
“The ‘soft-posting’ was not my idea,” McDuffie told me last week. “But I do support it as a component of the overall [Metropolitan Police Department (MPD)] strategy. It’s always helpful to enhance resources when you have these types of incidents in a neighborhood.
What about firefighters? Is being reckless with their lives acceptable? More important, when did they become part of the police department? What are their weapons against street thugs — fire hoses and defibrillators?
“Shifting our firefighters and apparatus away from their duties and responsibilities to perform tasks for which they aren’t trained . . . is senseless,” said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who, as chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, has oversight of the fire and police departments and who is one of nine candidates vying for the Democratic mayoral nomination in the April 1 primary.
“When the need for additional safeguards against crime is identified, the mayor should refocus our police force to address those concerns,” added Wells.
“Someone is going to get hurt,” warned Kristopher Baumann, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, which opposes the use of firefighters as law enforcement officers. He said if there is a shortage of officers, the mayor and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier should come out and say so.
Lanier was not available for comment. In an e-mail, department spokesperson Gwendolyn Crump suggested that the chief was on board with the “soft-posting” and that there is no shortage of officers. “We feel our staffing is appropriate, but we always welcome additional uniforms in the neighborhoods. It seems to us that this is a win-win for everyone,” Crump wrote.
Does anyone remember the hoopla in 2009 over the decision by then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s administration to donate a surplus fire truck and ambulance to a city in the Dominican Republic? The D.C. Council, then led by Gray, went ballistic. Eventually, the donation was withdrawn.
Now, Gray is content to use a fire truck as a crime “deterrent,” exposing it to possible attacks, including those by rock-throwing juveniles, while endangering the vehicle’s occupants. Quander told reporters that the administration intends to “use this strategy in other areas of the city as needed.”
When Gray became mayor, he promised to enhance public safety. But over the past three years, the MPD and Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services (FEMS) have been rocked by conflict and controversy. Police officers have not seen a raise in more than five years. Their union repeatedly has complained about what some describe as a hostile work environment and retaliation against whistleblowers.
“Given the current state of the [FEMS], any distractions from their immediate responsibilities are ill-advised,” said Wells, adding that he expects to examine the mayor’s plans during a Jan. 24 council oversight hearing.
FEMS Chief Kenneth Ellerbe came under criticism last year when there were too few ambulances on duty, forcing the city to reach out to Prince George’s County to get a badly injured police officer to the hospital. The administration has battled the firefighters union over changing the shifts for department personnel. Ellerbe’s decision to sit by as his department’s human and capital assets are misdirected is yet another mark against his leadership. Last year, Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh (D) called for Ellerbe’s resignation.
Should Quander also find the nearest exit? He is, after all, the common denominator for both the police department and the fire emergency medical services department.