A 13-month "firewatch" by D.C. firefighters at the old Federal City College shelter for the homeless in Northwest Washington may end soon because it is now in compliance with District fire codes, Fire Chief Theodore Coleman said yesterday.
The firewatch, which once was manned by six firefighters and is currently manned by four, has cost the city more than $450,000 in firefighter overtime since it started in February 1984, Coleman said.
In a wide-ranging news conference at fire department headquarters, Coleman also:
* Defended the fire department's affirmative action plan as "fair" but said he will not talk specifically about the plan while it is under litigation;
* Insisted that the 114 vacancies in the department's firefighting division will be filled by the end of the fiscal year;
* Said the fire department hopes to purchase 125 one-hour breathing masks by the first week of April;
* Announced a "verbal agreement" with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to install sprinklers in some government-owned group homes in the city using a $200,000 federal grant.
Coleman said his decision to end the firewatch at the shelter at 425 Second St. NW is pending a written inspection report from the fire marshal. The firewatch, during which four firefighters guard the building from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. each day, was put into effect because the shelter did not meet D.C. fire codes and was considered a "fire trap," officials have said.
However, new sprinklers have been installed and the fire alarm is now operating, Coleman said, and he is "contemplating" ending the watch. Firefighters have criticized the watch because of unsanitary and dangerous working conditions, including an incident in which Engine Company No. 3 had to be fumigated after a firefighter contracted a case of lice while stationed inside the shelter.
Regarding the fire department's affirmative action plan, which is being challenged by the U.S. Justice Department and the International Association of Fire Fighters for what they call "quotas" in minority hiring and promotional goals, Coleman said, "I feel my affirmative action plan is fair . . . . I will move to enforce the plan when all the issues have cleared and the courts have made a decision . . . I envision a favorable response."
On a related issue, Coleman said that 114 vacancies in the firefighting division, many of which have remained unfilled for years because of lawsuits challenging the department's hiring practices, "will be filled by the end of this fiscal year."
Asked why, in light of the current Justice Department challenge to the affirmative action plan, he thinks the vacancies can now be filled, Coleman said, "I am always optimistic that things will be better."
Coleman also said that the fire department hopes to purchase 125 one-hour, "positive pressure" breathing masks by the first week of April. Firefighters have complained that the 30-minute masks used by the department are unsafe and have been outlawed by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), though their use is legal in the District.
The D.C. Fire Department recently requested and received 110 regulators for the outlawed masks from the Fairfax County Fire Department, which stopped using them because of the OSHA regulation. Most "if not all" of the regulators, which control the flow of air from the air bottle to the face mask, were used, according to a source in the Fairfax County Fire Department. Coleman said they were acquired without his knowledge or approval so that some of their parts could be used to repair the city's broken masks. It is a violation of OSHA regulations to use used parts to repair masks.
After the news conference, Coleman said that the request for the regulators came from a D.C. firefighter in the Apparatus Division who had "acted on his own." Coleman said he ordered an internal investigation into the acquisition and was told that none of the parts from used masks are being used.