D.C. Fire Chief Donald Edwards isn't the only member of the fire department who owns a home outside the District. A battalion fire chief and at least a dozen D.C. firefighters live more than 25 miles from the city's neighborhoods, some as far as Lewes, Del., and Orrstown, Pa., according to property records.
At one point, a firefighter lived in New York City, driving more than 250 miles to work. A 1989 law requires D.C. Cabinet members and agency heads to live in the city. All rank-and-file members of the fire department must live within a radius of 25 miles of the U.S. Capitol unless given a special waiver, according to department policy.
The issue of firefighters living outside the area has raised questions about how often the waivers are granted and whether the policy is enforced at all, especially since Edwards came under attack last month for owning a home in Adelphi while renting an efficiency apartment in Northwest. Edwards, a 30-year veteran of the force, announced Monday that he would retire because of recent criticism over his management of the 1,830-employee department.
After the issue of Edwards's residency was raised, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said he expects all agency heads to live in the District and be a part of the fabric of city life. The mayor will look into Edwards's enforcement of the residency policy for the city's 1,200 firefighters, an administration source said yesterday.
Edwards, union leaders and rank-and-file firefighters defended the way the department enforces the policy. They said firefighters no longer need to live near the District to race to fires quickly, the original intent of the policy. Firefighters now work 24 hours and then are off for the next 72 hours, said Battalion Fire Chief Stephen M. Reid. Reid lives outside the 25-mile radius, but he would not say where.
"The residency thing is really kind of out the window," Reid said. "If you make it here in time for work, then more power to you. The ones who live outside the radius often get here earlier than the ones who live in the city."
Reid said he decided to live outside the 25-mile radius because he wanted good schools for his two children.
"There is also more bang for the buck out there," Reid said. "I couldn't have afforded the house that we bought [if I lived] in the city."
Others live outside the area because of where their spouses work or because of family situations. The firefighter who lived in New York City performed well, even with the commute. Recently, though, he quit and joined New York City's fire department, Reid said.
"The law is written so that if you want to live outside, it's no problem," Reid said. Other fire departments, however, require firefighters to live in the city. Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia all have such laws. New York City requires firefighters to live in the city or nearby counties. Several firefighters recently were dismissed for living in New Jersey. In Boston, city residency became part of the union contract in 1996.
"There were many neighborhood activists who thought city jobs should go to city people," said Steve McDonald, a Boston department spokesman.
Sgt. Raymond Gretz, a D.C. firefighter with Engine 12, lives in Arnold, about 35 miles outside the District. He owns a home there with his wife and two children. He never asked for a waiver. He thought it wouldn't be an issue.
"I think the policy is an archaic regulation," Gretz said. "It dates back to when they had to mobilize people quickly."
He said he moved to Arnold for its schools and for the pleasant atmosphere.
"It was definitely for family reasons, for schools and just to acquire a nice place," Gretz said. "I live right by the water and I have a boat. I prefer sailing on the Chesapeake rather than the Potomac."
He said he spends a lot of time in the District and cares about its people.
"Just because I don't live in the city doesn't mean I don't care about the city. I bring relatives downtown," Gretz said. "I'm there every day, just like everyone else who works there."
In a recent interview, Edwards said he was not aware that the policy was being violated in any way. He said there is a 1980 policy that gives preference to the applications of city residents and also gives them preference for promotions. "Overall, my preference is to have the very best people working for me," Edwards said.
Council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), a critic of Edwards, said she understands that the rank and file are not paid as well as Cabinet members and may move out of the city for better schools. However, there are limits, she said.
"I don't think it's fair to make the rank and file live in the District," Ambrose said. "But if there was a huge emergency, living in Pennsylvania or Delaware is just too far away."
Metro staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.