Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said a firefighter was suspended without pay for 60 days. The suspension is for 60 hours, as is noted elsewhere in the article. This story has been updated.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray, the District’s interim fire chief and the family of a man who collapsed across the street from a fire station are condemning as too lenient the punishment given to two firefighters found guilty of ignoring cries to help save the life of Medric “Cecil” Mills Jr. in January.
Neither firefighter will be fired. Instead, one who retired to his bunk to study for a promotional exam instead of helping Mills, 77, will be given a 60-hour suspension without pay, and a second was given a reprimand. Mills, who had collapsed of a heart attack down the street from the fire station on Rhode Island Avenue in Northeast, died hours later at a hospital.
On Thursday, top D.C. officials called the fire department’s disciplinary system a failure that needs to quickly be overhauled to give the executive more authority over panels made up of firefighters with the ranks of battalion chiefs and captains. The system is a result of collective bargaining between the District and the firefighters union.
“Justice was not done today,” Gray (D) said after the decisions were announced to exonerate one firefighter, reprimand a second and suspend a third. The rules prohibit the fire chief from overturning a trial board’s ruling or increasing the recommended punishment.
Mills’s family members, in a statement released by their attorney, called the rulings “appalling” and said “it speaks volumes about the culture and what firefighters see as acceptable conduct. . . . The trial board should be ashamed.”
The statement added that the family plans to pursue action through the courts, convinced that the District cannot by itself hold its employees accountable and “that as a firefighter, you can fail to do your job and still keep your job.”
The firefighters could not be reached to comment, and their attorney, Philip Andonian, did not return calls. Ed Smith, president of the firefighters’ union, said the labor group is “open to having a conversation on how to better our discipline process.” The union chief stressed that “this is a professional organization. We do not condone bad actions. We simply represent our members.”
Mills collapsed of a heart attack Jan. 25, and bystanders who rushed to the fire station to get help were turned away, wrongly told that no response could be launched until someone called 911. A passing ambulance stopped to help Mills, but he later died.
An internal investigative report revealed a wide culture of indifference and disfunction at the station of Truck 15. Firefighters said they didn’t know or hadn’t been told that Mills needed help or thought someone else was handling the emergency. One firefighter, instead of helping Mills, grabbed a book and retired to his bunk to study for a promotional exam. Others blamed a probationary firefighter who tried paging the lieutenant in charge instead of ringing the station’s general alarm.
The disciplinary hearings, each with a different panel, were conducted behind closed doors over three days in June. Officials refused Thursday to make the text of the rulings public. Fire Battalion Chief Leroy Cade, who chaired the hearing for George Martin, who was reprimanded, said he closed the hearing to the public because of precedent. Asked about the punishment, he said only, “You have to go back and look at all the evidence.”
The District’s deputy mayor for public safety, Paul A. Quander Jr., said that Garrett Murphy, a seven-year veteran who was found guilty of the most severe charge — conduct unbecoming — will be suspended for 60 hours without pay. Administrative charging documents accuse of him of reading while Mills lay outside. Firefighters work 24-hour shifts, so that sanction amounts to 2 1 / 2 days.
“The penalty imposed is a complete and utter shame,” Quander said. “It boggles the mind.”
Remy Jones, a probationary firefighter just months out of the academy, still faces discipline, although because of his status, his fate will be decided entirely by the fire chief. On Thursday, the chief said he believes that Jones was the “least culpable” in the incident.
The lieutenant in charge of the station, 28-year veteran Kellene Davis, retired before the trial board that convened in her case issued its formal decision, allowing her to collect a full annual pension of about $70,000. The fire chief said the panel did not recommend firing her, either, and instead planned to demote her to the rank of firefighter. Legislation is pending before the D.C. Council that would prevent firefighters with pending discipline from retiring.
Firefighter David Dennis, who also went before the trial board, was exonerated.
Former fire chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe, who has retired but was in charge when Mills died, called the rulings a product of firefighters protecting themselves. He added that panel members are too often “afraid to rock the boat” because they may be in front of a similar panel some day.
“This is a traditional department where members stick together regardless of the circumstances,” Ellerbe said. “The union has been a tremendous advocate for its members, but there are times when the labor organization and management must get together for the good of the city. I don’t think this outcome serves us well.”
Eugene A. Jones, the District’s interim fire chief who took over for Ellerbe in early July, called the punishments “not consistent with the fire service and how we conduct ourselves.” Jones, who had previously worked for the Prince George’s County Fire Department, said that there, the trial board decides only guilt or innocence and the fire chief makes the discipline decisions.
Jones said that at least one of the three firefighters, in addition to Davis, should have been fired. He said the three firefighters will undergo remedial training before they return to fighting fires and answering medical calls.
“We need a better process,” Jones said. “I think all of us agree we want due process. We want it fair. And we want the decisions to mete out the right justice. That didn’t occur.”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.