When I heard the news, I wanted to scream. A firefighter fails to do the right thing. A man dies. And the firefighter escapes meaningful punishment.
Of course, I’m talking about how D.C. firefighters did nothing after people banged on a firehouse door trying to get help for Medric Cecil Mills Jr., who had collapsed in a nearby parking lot. It was just too close to what happened to my brother, David Rosenbaum, eight years ago. David was robbed and beaten while walking in his quiet neighborhood one winter night. A neighbor found him on a sidewalk and called 911, but the first responders declared him drunk and did not check him for injuries. They drove him all the way across town to Howard University Hospital, where he was left to languish with a massive brain injury on a gurney in a hallway.
So when I heard about Mr. Mills, all I could think was that nothing had changed despite my family’s efforts to improve the city’s emergency medical services. We had demanded a task force to suggest changes; the task force convened and issued a thorough report. We’ve met repeatedly with the chief, union leaders, city officials and D.C. Council members. After all that, the Mills case just seemed like same old, same old.
But I did detect a glimmer of difference. When David was killed, and the whole parade of errors started oozing out, city officials, fire department brass and union leaders reacted in unison: “We did nothing wrong! It wasn’t our fault! We were just following procedure!” This time the reaction was the opposite. The leadership expressed horror; the union president called the family to offer his condolences.
In my brother’s case, the department dropped the ball and waited too long to file administrative charges against the personnel involved, who then escaped punishment. This time, management moved quickly to bring serious charges against Lt. Kellene Davis, who was in charge of the station when firefighters failed to answer repeated entreaties for help. There was plenty of time for a trial board to meet and render a judgment before she could retire. The trial board met but didn’t deliver a verdict, allowing Davis to navigate city rules and laws to retire at about 70 percent of her $100,000 pay.
We now know that much is still broken in the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. Some issues are being addressed: Response times for medical emergencies seem to be getting shorter. New ambulances are on the street, and fleet management seems to be coming under control. This month, Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe proposed a redeployment that would strengthen EMS in the heart of the city, though it’s going to be controversial; the chief wants to take fire trucks in a centrally located Northwest fire station out of service to make room for ambulances. But while top management seems to have a different attitude, among some members of the department there is still a “culture of indifference” toward EMS, as the inspector general called it after my brother’s death. The department will never reach its potential until that culture changes.
There are many causes for this negative culture, but chief among them is the lingering attitude that EMS duties are somehow subordinate to firefighting — that this is a fire department that also does emergency medical calls. In fact, it’s the opposite. More than 80 percent of emergency calls are for medical help. EMS is what the department does most of the time. D.C. firefighters need to perform all of their duties with competence, honor and, indeed, enthusiasm. Firefighters who want only to fight fires should find somewhere else to practice their trade.
More to the immediate point, as Davis’s case shows, fire department management needs the tools to ensure that employees whose actions are still guided by that culture of indifference can be held to account for their actions.
Here are four steps that should be taken immediately:
●Disciplinary trial boards should be convened swiftly, and the hearings should be public, as they generally are in the Metropolitan Police Department.
●Employees facing serious disciplinary charges should not be allowed to retire until the charges are resolved.
●Employees who are dismissed from the department as a result of such charges should not get retirement benefits.
●Retirement pay should be based, at least partly, on rank, so officers who are reduced in rank by disciplinary action will see a reduction in retirement pay.
These steps won’t make all the problems go away, but the problems won’t go away without them. I challenge fire department leadership, union officials, the D.C. Council and the mayor to do what’s needed to make sure that people who neglect their duty do not escape punishment again. And I challenge them to act now. We’ve all waited too long for the culture to change.
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