The Washington Post editorial of April 27 ("The Abusive Mr. Pepper"), as well as the article the day before ("Pepper Asks Probe of D.C. Licensing of Group Homes") were distressing because they missed the major thrust of our committee's hearing - to improve the safety and quality of the unknown thousands of boarding homes throughout the nation in the wake of 46 deaths in three states plus the District this month alone.
Testimony by District officials made up only 11 1/2 hours of a day-long hearing. The U.S. General Accounting Office, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, national consumer groups and officials of various states all testified that fire safety, health and nutrition standards are grossly inadequate and that thousands of elderly and mental patients are being dumped from state and local institutions into these facilities just to save money.
As part of this national investigation, I asked D.C. fire officials to testify as well. The truth of the matter is that I wanted very much to help the Fire Department. When I had visited the Roosevelt Hotel for Senior Citizens last Tuesday morning after yet another tragic fire, I met Public Affairs Chief Richard Hubscher, who was most outspoken. He expressed the frustrations felt by the rank and file of the Fire Department. He told me how the department had been effectively removed from the promulgation and enforcement of fire-safety standards. In the presence of reporters, he told me that the department had "no input at all." He added that the department had been instructed not to make waves when the Department of Human Resources placed clients in unlicensed firetraps and that they were to look the other way when the handicapped, the aged, the disabled-including double amputees-were placed or allowed to live in the Roosevelt, which was licensed as a hotel and by law could house only individuals who were ambulatory. I told Hubscher I was going to urge that all local fire departments have a voice and even a veto in such approvals since they have the most expertise in fire safety. Hubscher was invited to testify along with Lt. Jack Fletcher, who had previously been invited. Fletcher was preparing a report on the Lamont Street fire of April 11, which resulted in 10 deaths.
It was a surprise to the committee when Chief Jefferson Lewis walked to the witness stand with Hubscher and Fletcher.I was even more surprised when I repeated the questions I had asked the day before in the ashes of the Roosevelt fire.Chief Lewis' remarks were 180 degrees apart from what Hubscher had offered. Chief Lewis insisted that the department had all the authority it needed.
I patiently tried to reconcile the conflicting stories. Further questioning brought out that the witness had several meetings with D.C. officials sketching out the parameters of what they could and could not say to the commitee. In fact, our staff was told by Hubscher that included in this "briefing" were instructions not to even tell the committee who was responsible for enforcing laws to protect District residents from firetraps, or say anyting that might "point the finger" at anyone in D.C. government.
We patiently asked further questions in effort to learn who was in charge of approving these facilities. The Fire Department was anything but forthcoming in responding. When pressed for individual answers, they gave conflicting stories rather than clear-cut answers. They revealed a system of buck-passing and inaction in the face of statutory responsibility that can only be characterized as outrageous. Finally, Chief Lewis said that an existing law requiring annual inspections by the Fire Department was "non-functional."
The chief never said why, although I have learned that more funding is needed for the manpower to inspect. That was the answer I was trying to evoke at the hearing so that proper groundwork could be laid in the record for possible federal assistance.
What we criticized was not the performance of their duties as a fire department but their apparent effort at the hearing to cover up the bungling, red tape, administrative incompetence, confusion and failure by other parts of the District government. The department's refusal to respond to questions, even after members of our committee had repeated the questions more than a dozen times, was inexcusable. Fire officials offer the lame excuse that they did not know what issues were to be discussed at the hearing or they would have been better prepared, even though I had discussed these very issues with Hubscher the day before.
It is more than ironic that the day after our hearing, the mayor formally announced the suspension and down-grading of the building inspector who approved the substandard Lamont Street facility, which had no fire escape, no fire doors, no sprinklers, etc., and the mayor also censured the head of the Department of Human Resources.
I can understand The Post's rallying behind the city's fire chief and Mayor Barry's actions. I, too, applaud the fire department's physical handling of fires throughout the city. The department has saved hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of lives that would have been lost.
I want to emphasize that my personal comment about the chief was not made as part of this official hearing, but was an aside to a staff member as I walked off the dais. I can only add that it reflected our committee's frustration with his refusal to be forthcoming with infomation he had at hand.
I will be working closely with HEW in developing appropriate legislation if states and localities continue their inertia.
Lives can and must be saved. What a horrible thing to die by fire. I make no apology for pressing for the truth at our committee's hearing.