The D.C. fire department, which has suffered four firefighter deaths in the last two years, has failed to follow up on many of the critical safety recommendations included in a study of the first death released 15 months ago, City Council members and a union leader said yesterday.
The assessment came as the D.C. Council prepares for an oversight hearing today of the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, which also has been plagued in the last year by reports of slow ambulance response time, long delays in repairing ladder trucks and even shortages of firefighter boots.
One council member, Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), said yesterday that the performance of the department has been so poor that she questions whether Fire Chief Donald Edwards is up to the job.
"Four firefighters die after a period of 13 years in which there were no deaths. It says to me something is going awry, something has changed in the management of the fire department," said Ambrose, a member of the committee holding the hearing. "There is a management deficiency."
Edwards, a 30-year veteran of the department who took over as chief in September 1997, said yesterday that he would withhold comment on these remarks and other questions until the hearing.
"I am constantly pursuing every effort available to make this agency the very best it can be," he said.
Several council members yesterday came to Edwards's defense, noting that although the agency still has much work ahead--and has not complied with all of the safety recommendations--the department's equipment is in better shape today and its staff training has improved since he took over. Edwards, they said, needs more time to prove he can succeed.
"We have come a long way in the last year, but you cannot fix a dysfunctional department in one year," said council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), the former chairman of the oversight committee.
The intended topic of today's hearing is the debate over how the department can improve the response time and quality of its emergency medical service. Some advocate separating EMS duties from the department, and others think that more firefighters should be trained as paramedics so they can provide medical care while waiting for an ambulance.
Ambrose and other council members intend to ask broader questions about the overall performance of the department. The chief already has provided a written response to 26 pointed questions Ambrose raised about its truck maintenance program, emergency radios, ambulance squads and other agency matters.
In the chief's response, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, Edwards details a number of areas in which there are improvements but acknowledges that several of his initiatives are behind schedule, such as a new radio system, which was supposed to be in place by July. A broken radio was blamed in part for the death of Sgt. John Michael Carter, 38, in October 1997, and the report issued after his death recommended many improvements in department communications equipment and other safety measures.
Edwards attributed the delay of the new radio system in part to a leaking roof at the communications building where the new equipment will be housed. Among the other recommendations contained in the August 1998 report on Carter's death, the department has not yet added a fifth person to its trucks, or other staff to improve safety, Edwards acknowledged.
The department--which currently has 83 vacant firefighter slots--has been working for more than a year to hire new firefighters, but the training program for the first 48 new recruits still has not started, Ambrose said. There also have been delays in the training of firefighters as paramedics--a problem that Edwards attributes to the wait for needed approval from other city administrators.
Edwards said that an order was placed for 119 new sets of boots for firefighters after the city had to turn to Prince George's County recently when it could not find the right size boots. And the chief said progress has been made in returning ladder trucks to service; a quarter of the 16 trucks were out in August, awaiting replacement or repair.
D.C. Fire Fighters Association President Raymond Sneed, who represents about 1,300 active firefighters, said he and other firefighters are concerned about the agency's management.
"There is a question in [Edwards's] ability or role to stand up to the plate to provide the necessary tools for the firefighters to do their job," he said.
But council member Harold Brazil (D-At Large), chairman of the oversight committee, said that like Evans, he is reserving judgment on Edwards's performance.
"We are making improvements. But we not there yet," Brazil said.
CAPTION: Sharon Ambrose is concerned about the rise in fire department deaths.