D.C. public safety agencies will adopt policies to ensure that life-threatening building code violations are promptly addressed, an effort to prevent the kind of missteps that preceded a deadly fire last month in Brightwood Park, officials said Wednesday.
The policies dictate that District police officers report potential fire code violations to a supervisor, who will relay the complaint to the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department through the District’s dispatch center. A fire battalion chief will immediately respond to the site to perform an inspection, Fire Chief Gregory M. Dean said.
“The goal is that we would try to get there within 30 minutes,” Dean said in an interview. “The idea behind this is that the [police] officer may not know if it’s a building or a fire-code violation. It’s much easier for the fire department go out there.”
Dean said he hopes to implement the new policy this week. Police Chief Peter Newsham on Tuesday signed an executive order establishing the procedures for the city’s police force.
The rapid-response protocols stand in contrast to the handling of a police officer’s report about a rowhouse on Kennedy Street NW, which received a much-criticized response from city housing code inspectors. An investigator from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs visited the property multiple times but closed the case without action when he could not get inside the rowhouse, DCRA Director Ernest Chrappah said.
Police say that conditions inside that house “contributed to the deaths” of 9-year-old Yafet Solomon and 40-year-old Fitsum Kebede in a fire on Aug. 18.
The tenants, mostly Ethiopian immigrants, described a warren of rooms, each no bigger than a queen-size bed. An application for a search warrant after the fire also identified a metal gate that could not be opened from the inside, as well as an electrical system insufficient for the number of people living in the house.
The owner of the house, James G. Walker, has not responded to interview requests.
City officials are conducting multiple internal reviews of how the case was handled. Four District employees have been placed on administrative leave — two at the fire department and two at DCRA.
The consumer and regulatory affairs agency is also reviewing nearly 70 cases closed since December — some involving the same investigator who responded to the report about the Kennedy Street house — to determine whether those cases should be reopened.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) ordered the new protocols. She also has commissioned an independent study to determine what went wrong and called for a criminal investigation into the fire.
“It is clear that our agencies should have done more to better protect our residents,” City Administrator Rashad M. Young said last week.
The deadly fire has focused attention on the dangerously cramped living conditions endured by some District residents desperate for affordable housing in an increasingly expensive city — and on the effectiveness of the bureaucracy tasked with ensuring that those conditions do not become fatal.
A police officer who visited 708 Kennedy St. NW on an unrelated call in March emailed fire and DCRA officials to warn of potential fire code violations in what appeared to be an unlicensed rooming house.
An incident report the officer sent described “make shift doors with locks which would make it difficult to exit in an emergency.” The officer said he would “strongly recommend” that inspectors visit the property. Portions of his report were written in bold for emphasis.
When no action was taken, the police officer followed up with multiple emails. Eventually, an investigator from the DCRA went to the house to determine whether it was being used in an unlicensed manner but closed the case when he could not gain entry.
It is unclear how many other officials — at the fire department or the DCRA — were aware of the police officer’s warning. Dean, the fire chief, said his agency is reconstructing how the complaint was handled and determining why no fire code inspection was performed at Kennedy Street NW.
Dean said fire officials tried to visit a second property flagged in the police officer’s report but gave up when they determined that he had provided an invalid address. The officer mistakenly wrote the address as 5410 14th St. NW. The correct address is 5310 14th St. NW.
On Friday night, city officials used a search warrant to inspect that house, discovering a “junky and unkempt” single-family residence that had been divided into nine rooms, with nonworking smoke detectors and a sliced power cord, according to a report.
The owner of that property, Chidi Anyanwutaku, confirmed to The Washington Post that he charged rent but disputed some of the inspectors’ findings.