Joyce Dempsey was on her way to work Monday morning when she made a left-hand turn off Fourth Street NW onto College Street, a turn she has made dozens of times. Suddenly, she collided with a D.C. Fire Department car that was passing her in the intersection with its lights flashing and sirens blaring.
The 32-year-old Dempsey, who said she did not see the lights or hear the sirens until the collision, was charged with failure to yield right-of-way to an emergency vehicle and given a $50 ticket.
As it turned out, the fire department car was not heading to a fire but rather carrying Deputy Fire Chief Joseph Kitt to a fire officials' staff meeting.
"To me it was an emergency," said Kitt, who had directed his driver, firefighter William Waddell, to turn on the lights and siren to help get through heavy traffic.
Dempsey has a different view and said she plans to contest the ticket.
"That meeting is not an emergency," she said. "They are only supposed to use those flashing lights in the case of emergency. It could have been worse. This has really upset me."
Kitt said he was across town in Southeast Washington near Pennsylvania and Branch avenues and was late for a scheduled 8 a.m. staff meeting at 300 McMillan Dr. NW, about a block from where the accident occurred.
As Kitt and his driver traveled north on Fourth Street near College Street, they approached Dempsey's car from the rear, according to a D.C. police report. She was in the northbound lane on Fourth Street, waiting to make a left-hand turn onto College, according to the police report.
"There was a bus approaching me in the southbound lane and the driver beckoned me to make my turn," Dempsey told The Washington Post. When she did, she hit the right rear side of the fire department car, which had swerved into the southbound lane to pass the heavy traffic in the northbound lane, according to the police report. There were no injuries.
"I didn't hear the sirens or see the lights until the collision," said Dempsey, who has been driving for 12 years.
"I asked her, 'Miss, you didn't see us? You didn't hear us?'" Kitt recalled asking Dempsey after the accident.
Since he was late for the meeting, Kitt said he left his aide and Dempsey to give the report to the police and walked about a block to the meeting.
"This is not unusual," Kitt said of the use of the emergency equipment to get to scheduled meetings. Fire department regulations prohibit use of sirens and flashing lights except in an emergency, which generally has been interpreted to mean fires. Kitt said the incident was being blown out of porportion by fire department personnel, who he says have been critical of him.
A fire department spokesman said the department is conducting a routine investigation of the accident.
The spokesman said the accident caused about $500 damage to the fire department vehicle. Dempsey said she did not have an estimate of car damages.