The District's interim fire chief staged a dynamic audition for the permanent post yesterday when he completely redrew the lineup of the fire department's top commanders and pledged to have the department respond to all 911 calls within six minutes by next year.
The moves, which were met with measured enthusiasm by city leaders and the department's rank and file, appeared to be both an effort to respond to long-standing problems and part of a campaign by Interim Chief Thomas Tippett to win a permanent appointment.
Tippett, the former union leader who for years had been the chief critic of past administrations, said he is realigning the department with the mayor's blessing and even while the search goes forward.
"I can't wait four, five, six months until a final decision is made" to start changing the fire department, Tippett said. "Too many of these issues are critical--they're life or death."
In November, when Chief Donald Edwards resigned, Tippett agreed to take stewardship of a department that is short-staffed, lacks modern equipment and is still trying to recover from the deaths of four firefighters. The irony that Tippett himself was at the forefront of most of the attacks on former chiefs is not lost on him. "It may strike some as strange," Tippett said.
But he may be part of a trend. In both New York and Boston, the new fire chiefs are former union leaders, said Stephen D. Harlan, a former member of the financial control board who is organizing the nationwide search for a new fire chief.
In the two months since he took the job, Tippett has been making bold moves, acting very much like a newly minted chief. He has gone online to search for a new ladder truck and pumper vehicles, provided firefighters with tracking devices and begun steering Emergency Medical Services in a different direction. He spends at least two nights a week in a firehouse. Today, he plans to be on Capitol Hill, seeking federal funds to supplement the budget.
And while a search committee is casting a wide net to find the best candidate, Tippett said he is working 12- and 14-hour days to prove the quest should end here at home. His work has already impressed some members of the D.C. Council. "There is already a big difference between he and the former chief," said council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5).
When Tippett went on the Internet to find new fire trucks--quickly solving a procurement problem--he impressed council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6). "Tom's really quick action to get those trucks said a lot to us," she said. "He also has a very good sense of what the problems here have been."
Though all these changes are being hailed as strong and decisive by many officials, Tippett's reconfiguring of all the commanders was not universally welcome. Council member Harold Brazil (D-At Large), who heads the search committee, said he was concerned that an interim chief was "making such wholesale changes."
Last year, Brazil supported a proposal to create an independent EMS system, in an effort to cure the stepchild syndrome that may have fostered many EMS inefficiencies. Yesterday, Tippett moved rapidly in the other direction, tucking EMS farther into the fire department fold. But even Brazil said he is impressed with Tippett's rapport with firefighters.
In the next few months, more firefighters will be trained as paramedics in an effort to expand a pilot program that puts a paramedic on every fire truck. Tippett says that 10- to 12-minute response times for EMS calls are not acceptable and that by next year help will arrive within six minutes of a 911 call.
Tippett also wants to eliminate the two-tier culture of the department, which he said places more emphasis on fighting fires and has been known to place less urgency on medical calls. To move toward that goal, Tippett redefined the role of EMS Director Fernando Daniels, limiting his role to medical concerns and granting responsibility for EMS operations to a newly appointed director.
A combination of five retirements, a few reassignments and several promotions cleared the way for Tippett's new cabinet. Of the 12 commanders, 11 are new in their positions. Daniels remained a commander, but with a different emphasis. Tippett also expects to hire 200 firefighters in the next 18 months, in addition to the 60 recruits attending the D.C. Fire Academy.
As labor chief, Tippett openly fought affirmative action. Within the union, there has been concern over how his views would affect promotions. After yesterday's appointments, six commanders are black and six are white.
"I have no apologies to make for any past actions as a labor organization leader," Tippett said. "Race is quite frankly not a consideration."
Appointed yesterday were Carlton Ford, assistant fire chief for operations; Joseph Herr, assistant fire chief for services; William Mould, assistant fire chief for EMS; Christopher Zervas, EMS operations; Danny Mott, special assistant to the fire chief, representing EMS; Beatrice Rudder, deputy fire chief in charge of training; Adrian Thompson, deputy fire chief in charge of the fire prevention division; Rogers Massey, deputy fire chief, No. 1 Platoon; Jerome Schaefer, deputy fire chief, No. 2 Platoon; James Martin, deputy fire chief, No. 3 Platoon; William Fitzgerald, deputy fire chief, No. 4 Platoon.
CAPTION: Interim Chief Thomas Tippett answers questions at a news conference announcing changes. Tippett realigned the top commanders and pledged to have the department respond to all 911 calls within six minutes by next year.
CAPTION: Tippett said of his decisions: "I can't wait four, five, six months. . . . Too many of these issues are critical."