The red double doors of the firehouse popped open, and Engine Company 6 began to roll. Tucked in the cab of the D.C. Fire Department pumper were Lt. Gary Buck and three other men, racing to a call a block away on New Jersey Avenue NW.
One truck, four firefighters. That would be an engine company in most big cities.
This is not most big cities.
Through the firehouse doors rumbled a second pumper with a single firefighter, driver Al Jeffery, answering the same call. The first pumper and its four firefighters never leave home without that second pumper and its one firefighter, the norm at all District firehouses.
And that, says a panel of community leaders, is a $9.2 million mistake.
In one of the most nettlesome recommendations flowing from its analysis of D.C. government finances, a 44-member commission has urged the abolition of the second truck and fifth firefighter at each of the District's 33 engine companies, arguing that they are a luxury a strapped city cannot afford.
Other towns, says the commission, do just fine with one and four.
Other towns, says Lt. Buck, could go to blazes.
"The five-man team seems to be the safest we can come up with, the magic number," he said.
It is an issue that has swirled about the D.C. Fire Department for years, pitting allegations of featherbedding against concerns for safety. Repeatedly, the Barry administration has tried to make cuts, only to be blocked by the D.C. Council and Congress, which barred as unsafe any change in staffing and equipment levels in District engine companies.
"I'm not too concerned this report's going to do anything," said Thomas N. Tippett, president of Local 36 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which represents nearly all of the Fire Department's 1,428 uniformed employees. "I'm convinced the citizens, the elected officials and the Congress aren't going to have any part of buying into this craziness."
But the District's budget director, Richard C. Siegel, thinks the idea is anything but crazy. "It's a matter of good government to do this, and we ought not to be using taxpayers' dollars for things we don't need."
The commission, headed by the former director of the Congressional Budget Office, Alice M. Rivlin, contended that the D.C. Fire Department "is the only major fire department in the U.S. that still operates with two-piece engine companies on an exclusive basis."
That system, the commission said, is "an anachronism," a legacy of the era of the horse. So heavy were the coal-fired engines used to drive water pumps that a team of horses could not also carry hoses to a blaze. A second team had to do that.
Modern trucks, however, have no such limitations, the commission said. In a survey of 13 large cities, a consulting firm hired by the commission found that eight organize their engine companies around four-person crews on a single truck. Four others also use only a single truck but either sometimes or always assign five firefighters.
Only the District routinely has engine companies composed of two trucks with a total of five firefighters. (Fire departments also include ladder companies, the teams that operate the long, two-driver vehicles that carry an extendable ladder.)
Not surprisingly, the District has more firefighters per capita and a larger fire department budget per capita than any of the 12 other cities, according to the consulting firm, University City Science Center, a Philadelphia company with an office in Herndon.
"It's got to be one of the most expensive operations in the country," said an analyst who asked not to be identified.
The additional firefighter at 33 companies does not mean 33 additional jobs. It means 168 additional jobs, given that firehouses are staffed 24 hours a day. The department's $100 million budget could be reduced by $9.2 million if those positions were eliminated, the commission said.
And such a cut would not leave a city more vulnerable to fire, it contended.
With the current configuration, the District does appear safer than most cities. The consulting firm found that the District was low in fire deaths and property damage during the last three years, compared with the 12 other cities. There were, for example, no deaths or injuries Thursday in a blaze in an Adams-Morgan condominium apartment building that was one of the city's worst fires in years.
But the analyst said the cities that have better safety records do not use two-truck, five-member crews, so there is not necessarily a link between safety and the size of engine companies.
The consultant's report alleged further that only 15 percent of the fire department's calls involve fires. Most of the rest are false alarms or medical emergencies, to which an engine or ladder company always responds to provide initial care. Engine Company 6, for example, was on its way to a two-car collision in which a woman was slightly hurt.
Of the alarms that involve fires, the overwhelming majority can be doused with water carried aboard each pumper, the consultant said. Only 5 percent of all alarms nationwide are so serious that they require hoses to be connected to hydrants.
And in those cases, the District has another weapon: extensive overlap in coverage areas among the 33 firehouses. If each engine company was reduced to one truck and four firefighters, safety would not diminish because help would not be far away in most cases, the commission said.
Staffing was not its only concern. The Herndon firm said overtime has ballooned, rising from $7.7 million in 1985 to an estimated $19 million this year. That leap, the consultant said, stems from several factors.
First, a hiring freeze caused by court battles over hiring and promotion has left the department so understaffed that firefighters are often summoned to work overtime at desk jobs or in ambulance crews. And District firefighters use sick leave more often than those in other cities, prompting still more overtime.
Fire Chief Ray Alfred would not comment on the Rivlin report.
His firefighters did.
Tippett vigorously disputed that his members abuse sick leave. But his main target was the proposal to cut staffing from five to four.
"Sure," said Tippett, who serves in a rescue squad, "you can play a basketball game with four guys. But no one's going to say you'll take a 20 pecent reduction in manning and do the same job.
"Why the hell should we be contemplating a change? Bucks. Money is it. I'm not about to get into a situation where we're trading the safety of our guys for money."
The five-member, two-engine company executes a swift ballet, he said, in which one truck is hooked to the hydrant nearest the fire and then linked by hose to the other truck, which has driven directly to the blaze. Water is pumped from hydrant to first truck to hose to second truck, and from there into the main firefighting hose. Three firefighters manage the linkup and monitor water flow, while the two others attack the fire.
Two trucks are needed, Tippett said, because water pressure in the District is much lower than in other cities. The flow needs to be boosted twice, once at the hydrant and once nearer the fire, he said. Otherwise, pressure would drop because of "friction loss" as water travels through the hoses.
Another reason to keep the current staffing, he said, is the District's unique character. The fire department is prohibited from conducting inspections at embassies and federal buildings, leaving them unusually susceptible to fire, Tippett said. Extra protection is needed to ensure they can be saved.
Tippett acknowledged that firefighters spend only a small portion of their time fighting fires. And the second truck and fifth firefighter are of little use when an engine company is answering a medical call.
But, Tippett said, "we can't pick and choose" when a serious fire will occur. And when one does, he said, he wants the extra help.
"A lifeguard may go through his or her career and make only one or two real rescues," he said, but that does not mean there should be fewer lifeguards.