D.C. Fire Chief Donald Edwards, a 30-year veteran whose promotion to chief was lauded by the rank and file, said yesterday he will retire because of recent criticism over his management of the troubled department.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) is expected to make the formal announcement today at a news conference. The mayor's spokeswoman, Peggy Armstrong, said he also expects to name an interim fire chief today.
"The mayor's operating policy is to conduct a national search" for a permanent successor to Edwards, Armstrong said.
Williams, who has said Edwards didn't move quickly enough to improve the department, met with the fire chief for 45 minutes last night in Williams's office at One Judiciary Square. Erik Christian, Williams's senior adviser for public safety, also attended.
Williams also had criticized Edwards for owning a home in Maryland and renting an apartment in the District. Under District law, all D.C. Cabinet members and agency heads are required to live in the city.
"Even before all of this flak, I had been thinking about retiring," Edwards said in an interview yesterday. "There comes a time when one has to make changes. You get to a point when you realize there are other things in life. But I have mixed emotions about leaving."
Edwards said he would offer Williams the names of possible successors.
Armstrong said Williams would like to buy more firefighting equipment now that the city has emerged from financial crisis. "The mayor has said that he wants to see the District's fire department become one of the best in the country," she said. "The mayor feels the citizens deserve a first-rate fire department."
Edwards, 55, was named chief in 1997 by then-Mayor Marion Barry. As an insider who rose through the fire department ranks, Edwards was praised at the time by many of the 1,200 firefighters, who believed he understood the issues and would work diligently to correct staffing and equipment deficiencies.
But soon after taking over, Edwards was beset by controversy. In October 1997, fire Sgt. John Carter died while battling a blaze at 400 Kennedy St. NW. An investigation found dozens of problems, including that Carter was carrying a faulty radio and was cut off from fellow firefighters. Carter was the first D.C. firefighter killed on duty in 13 years.
Months passed before Edwards took action, according to union officials.
"I was disappointed that he wasn't as aggressive as he should have been to get the job done," said Lt. Raymond Sneed, president of the D.C. firefighters union and a member of the search committee that selected Edwards. "There are a number of safety issues he hasn't addressed."
But Edwards said yesterday that he worked vigorously to purchase much-needed firetrucks, state-of-the-art radios and other equipment suggested in a report released after the investigation.
"Most of the things we could physically do, we did," Edwards said.
The defective radios, he said, are being replaced. Three hundred new breathing apparatuses with personal alarm safety devices used to locate firefighters in a burning building will be in service next week.
Sneed said the radios should have been replaced months ago. And firefighters have not been trained in how to use the new breathing apparatus.
"They should have been trained on this equipment before it arrived," Sneed said.
Four new pumpers are set for delivery by mid-December, and two ladder trucks will roll out on the street in February, Edwards said. He also has ordered 17 more pumpers and three aerial ladder trucks. Since 1993, the department has replaced 12 ladder trucks, he said. Four were replaced during his tenure. "There were delays in procurement," he conceded.
D.C. Council member Harold Brazil (D-At Large) said Edwards cannot be held solely responsible for not turning the department around in two years.
"Sometimes I think the expectations are unrealistic," Brazil said yesterday. "The chief has ordered equipment and made improvements. You've got to judge him on a realistic basis."
Edwards, who is paid $135,000 a year and oversees a $112 million budget and 1,830 employees, said he inherited a department with a history of antiquated equipment and staffing problems. He currently has 80 vacant firefighter positions.
He said he did the best he could in two years.
"When I took over, this department was in deep trouble," Edwards said. ". . . My tenure has been successful. One would have to look at where we were then and where we are now."
CAPTION: D.C. Fire Chief Donald Edwards talks to reporters after meeting with Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) about his retirement. Williams plans to name an interim chief today and launch a search for Edwards's replacement.