D.C. fire officials said yesterday that the unit assigned to protect the presidential helicopter in the event of a fire or crash at the White House is adequately equipped and properly trained and that neither the president nor the firefighters are at risk.
In a seven-point account of Engine Company 13's training, equipment inspections and gear replacement schedule, Howard E. Dixon, assistant fire chief for operations, said he wanted to "set the record straight" regarding recent reports about the unit's equipment. Fire union officials have complained of protective suits that were torn or otherwise damaged and other alleged equipment inadequacies.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," Dixon said.
Capt. Theodore O. Holmes, a department spokesman, said that several new proximity suits, which deflect heat and allow firefighters to get close to a fire, were provided to Engine 13 personnel about 10 days ago, in time for a firefighting exercise conducted Sunday with Secret Service personnel at the White House. The department is buying 12 more new suits, Holmes said.
He said the commanding officer of the unit has rated the equipment and determined that no one is at risk.
"Some of the suits are newer, some are older. Some have hairline cracks in them," Holmes said. Recalling a recent inspection of the Engine Company's 13 proximity suits, Holmes said that 10 of them received a top rating on a scale of 1 to 10 and that two received a rating of 9. "There's no officer in this department that would allow a member of his unit to put on gear that would subject that member to harm or injury."
Also, union officials have complained that the department does not have entry suits, which allow firefighters to walk through fire without being burned. "The determination had not been made up to this point that entry suits were needed for the type of operations that were taking place with regard to helicopter crashes," Holmes responded. But the department now will be looking at the possibility of buying some of the suits, he said.
Dixon said that Engine 13's training for its White House assignment included drills at the Fire Department training academy last summer. Also, he said that department procedures for helicopter landings and departures at the White House and vice president's mansion were updated in April and that copies were distributed to fire personnel.
Along with reports of faulty proximity suits, there have been complaints that fire extinguishing foam sprayers may not work. Holmes said late last summer the foam canisters worked properly and that all personnel assigned to Engine 13 have received proper training.