More than 300 frustrated D.C. firefighters marched on the District Building yesterday to dramatize the morale problems they say they suffer because of budget cuts and city officials' heavy-handed administration of the department.
It was the second time in three days that city employes and others had protested the Barry administration's proposed cuts in the city's budget, cuts designed to help the city make up a widening budget deficit.
D.C. Firefighters Association president Bill Hoyle also criticized the recent elimination of 24 fire chiefs aide positions and promotion policies that he said were based on race, adding that the "city's department is in danger of a serious slide . . . that could endanger the lives and property of residents in the District."
The protest, Hoyle said, "comes as a result of an intensifying patter of disconcern for, and indifference toward, the firefighters of this city by Mayor Barry and [city administrator] Elijah Rogers."
Hoyle added that the firefighters were unhappy with "the failure of Fire Chief Norman Richardson to firmly lead the D.C. fire department, his submitting to the manipulation of the city administrator, and his expressed apathy to the morale of this city's loyal firefighters. . . ."
Carrying signs saying "Suppose you had a fire and nobody came?" and "Who is the fire chief, Norman or Elijah?" the firefighters, many of whom had just finished all-night shifts, marched from Old Engine Company No. 2 at 12th and G streets NW to the District Building, where they rallied for more than two hours in hopes of gaining an audience with Barry, the candidate the union had supported in the 1978 mayoral race.
While City Council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At-large) and Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) came outside to address the group, Barry opted instead for a closed-door meeting with top officials of the firefighters' union.
Through a spokesman at a press conference yesterday, Barry said he did not speak at yesterday's rally because "I wasn't invited. Even if I were invited, I probably wouldn't have gone down. I don't think a mayor can go around conducting the city's business in the streets."
Barry's last encounter with city employes came Saturday, when more than 300 persons, representing city workers and groups that benefit from city programs, engaged Barry in a shouting match over proposed budget cuts and layoffs.
Blaming Congress for cutting the District's funding requests, Barry said yesterday, "I said months ago that these cuts would cause pain. The patients are now coming in and demonstrating their sickness."
The fire department's current budget crunch began when Congress cut the city's $58.4 million budget for fire services for fiscal 1980 by $1.5 million. It then denied the department's request for $696,000 to cover employe pay raises and recently granted only $64,000 of a $367,000 request that fire officials sought for fuel costs.
Then on April 1, the department had to cut another $550,000 -- eliminating the 24 administrative slots -- as its part of agency-wide budget cuts ordered by Barry.
All these cuts, top fire department officials say could lead to the closing of one of the city's 33 fire companies and the elimination of one of the city's 16 ambulances.
Another hot issue raised at the rally was what one battalion chief called the department's "radically biased" promotion system, a system many firefighters charged is being directed by city government officials.
For years, promotions in the fire department closely followed seniortiy rankings under the civil service system. But over the last few years, in an effort to open the department's upper ranks to minorities, administrators are using additional criteria to make promotion decisions.
All the budget money in the world is not going to help the department if the wrong people are doing the leading," said Battalion Chief Bill Phillips, a 30-year veteran of the department.
Phillips cited the recent promotions of Deputy Chief Joseph Kitt and Theodore Coleman in making that charge. Kitt and Coleman, who are both black, were ranked 19th and 20th on the Battalion Chiefs' seniorty list before they were promoted Phillips said that many white officers in the department have become "disillusioned and are ready to quit because there seems to be no way up for white men in the department anymore."
However, Ted Holmes, president of the black Progressive Firefighters Union said. "We don't have enough blacks in the upper levels as it is . . . In order for the department to move foreward, we're going to have to have minorities throughout the rank.')
Chief Richardson denied that the department was being run from the District Building. "The mayor is aware of the department but he doesn't interfere with me or the way I want to operate. He has concerns and questions as any good mayor should.
"The men are confused," Richardson added. "They don't know what will happen next . . . We lose something every year and they are uncertain about where it will end."