An effort to cut costs in the D.C. Fire Department by doubling up the members of three fire companies on firefighting and rescue squad duties has produced a fire death rate in those special companies' areas four times the city average, an internal department study concludes.
The report concludes that the units were unable to respond to fires that resulted in 14 deaths in their jurisdictions in 1978 -- more than four deaths per unit -- because they often were busy with other duties.
In the same year, there were 41 deaths in the areas of the city's 51 other companies -- units that have only firefighting duties -- less than one per unit.
In the special companies -- called combination units -- one group of five men is responsible for manning both an engine company (a pumper truck and a hose truck used to extinguish fires) and a rescue company (a squad wagon equipped with heavyduty resuce equipment and resuscitators for rescue in fires, auto accidents and other personal injuries. Of the four rescue squads in the city, three are combination units.
Thus, the report says, while the fire department lists total manpower as 54 companies, it has personnel to man only 51. In effect, then, the department has covered its shortage of manpower by assigning 15 men on each shift to do the work of 30 in the three special units. The city estimates it is saving $1.1 million this year through use of the combination units.
"The bottom line," the report says, "is that we are dealing with lives, and combination companies have reduced our service."
The 15-page report was written by Robert C. Bingham, battalion chief in charge of planning.
Since the units were created in October 1977, the report says, there has been a "marked increase" in their workload. Combination units averaged 3,000 responses in 1978, compared with 1,200 for the average fire company.
And because the combination units are sometimes needed in two places in two capacities at the same time, critical problems ensue.
One engine company, for example, was unable to respond to about 43 percent of its calls because of its combination duties. For another engine company, the number was 41 percent.
With one crew responsible for two functions, the report says, areas of the city are left without their usual coverage. If a rescue squad is out on a call and there is a fire near its station, engine companies and a rescue squad from other parts of the city must be dispatched to the fire.
This results in a delay of anywhere from three to 12 minutes, firefighters say, depending upon distance and traffic conditions, before firefighters can begin distinguishing the blaze.
Firefighters say time is the most crucial element in fighting fires. "A fire can start on a mattress on the first floor of a building," said John Miller, a 15-year veteran of the department stationed at Squad 1 and Engine 6, 1300 New Jersey Ave. NW, "and within 25 seconds to a minute, the heat builds up and the fire can spread through the room, onto the whole floor and up to the second floor."
"The majority of fire deaths come from smoke inhalation," said Squad 1 driver Tom Tippett, who has been on the force 12 years. A lack of oxygen to the brain can cause brain damage in four to six minutes, and you have to assume that it's going to take a few minutes for someone to report the fire."
The members of Squad 1 say there have been several deaths because combination units were unable to respond to a blaze.
On Dec. 12, 1977, they said, two Northeast women were killed and their town house at 1157 First Ter., was gutted.
At 1:18 a.m. on that day, according to records, the closest resuce Squad to the First Terrace address was dispatched to the fire. When it arrived, a hook and ladder truck was there, but no engine -- and therefore no water.
The next engine company called, out of 1600 North Capitol St., was 18 blocks away at a fire on Florida Avenue. When that company alerted headquarters it was unavailable, a third engine company was summoned from 13th and K streets NW. It took six minutes for this company to get to the fire.
"If our engine company (and not their quad) had been sent to the fire," said a resuce squad memeber at the time, "they might have got those poor women out."
Besides costing lives, combination units could cost District homeowners and bussinessmen insurance money.
The city fire department maintains a Class 1 insurance rating, making it one of three city departments in the United States to receive that highest rating. Only Memphis and Los Angeles match the District.
Insurance ratings are given nationally Insuance Services Office, a group supported by insurance companies to rate a city's insurance risks based on a number of factors such as fire department effectiveness, building codes, water supply and property loss statistics.
David White, manager of the Insurance Rating Bureau of the District -- a local, private insurance coalition that enforces fire insurance regulations in the city -- said that "drastic deficiencies" in the department would have to be found to cause an increase in insurance premiums. But, he said, "if losses were high over a number of years, insurance rates would be affected."
Fire department statistics show that although the number of alarms per year has gone down since 1976, one year before the combination units were put into service, deaths and property damage has risen.
In 1976, firefighters answered 37,400 fire alarms in the city; in 1979 they responded to 35,119. Yet, during the same period, deaths have risen from 32 to 48 and property damage estimates from 7,558,000 to more than $10 million. 3
Informed fire department sources say that with proposed budget cuts for fiscal 1981 -- estimates range from $1.5 million to as much as $4 million -- the problem can only worsen.
The report says that budget cuts have left the department's manpower, currently at 1,450 firefighters, slightly above 1930 levels. Census figures show that 486,800 people lived in the District in 1930. Figures for 1979 place the total at 656,000.
In comparison, the police department has almost doubled in the last 30 years, from 2,076 officers to 4,110.
Newly appointed D.C. Fire Chief Norman Richardson declined to speak with a reporter. But a department spokesman said "any future budget cuts would not help at all. If the mayor insists that we cut our expenses, the only thing we can cut is our services. All we provide is fire protection, prevention, firefighter training and ambulance services. There is no fat in our budget."
Reached by telephone, Battalion Chief Bingham, who wrote the report, said the report was ordered by Mayor Marion Barry in 1979 after a study by the Insurance Services Office found deficiencies in the combination system. The report was then sent to the mayor, but Bingham said he hasn't heard anything about it since.
"There's a definite problem. . . . It looks like it's going to get worse with cut backs coming. We'll be lucky to hold what we have," Bingham said.
City Administrator Elijah, Rogers said he could not comment on the study because he has not seen it.
Combination units were put into service in October 1977 when the department's budget was cut by $1.3 million. The units replaced a system, started in the summer of 1975, in which four firehouses around the city were closed on a rotating basis to save money. That system was scrapped after two children, who lived three blocks from the firehouse that was closed that day, died in a September 1976 fire in their Northeast Washington home.
At that time, the rotation system was referred to by firefighters as "Russian Roulette." This system is just as bad," said Bill Hoyle, president of the Firefighter's Association and a Squad 4 driver. "The city might as well put a gun to its head, spin the chamber and pull the trigger.
The basic function of the squads is rescue," Hoyle continued. "We are fresh, specialized, experienced . . . But when you have to run on fires, ambulance calls, car accidents, gas leaks and also stand watch at night and study for promotion exams -- not to mention run on all the fires as an engine company, you just can't be fresh. That's when people get killed and property is lost."
One problem Bingham's study does not consider is the effect the combination units have on department heads. "We're here to fight fires and save lives," said Squad 1 and Engine 6 member Miller. "but when we can't respond to a fire because we are busy with a rescue or vice-versa, it's very frustrating . . . We're tired and frustrated."
To correct the department's manpower problems, Bingham's study suggests the addition of two companies -- 44 firefighters -- at a cost of $1.1 million. But in light of city budget cuts, he said, the chances of manning the two proposed companies are "slim."