As gray smoke rose from the burning condo building on U Street, D.C. Fire Chief Gregory M. Dean circled the block, talking with battalion chiefs and paramedics standing ready to treat anyone who was injured.
He didn’t assume command. Instead, Dean kept his eye trained on the grunt work of firefighters, hauling hoses and training water on hot spots. It was a large response to a blaze in a historic part of the city’s new boomtown, and, although the scene was smoky, sprinklers had largely extinguished the flames.
But for Dean, 65, a veteran chief from Seattle who started in the District in May, it was another chance to watch his troops in action as he works to overhaul the long-troubled fire department. At first, he didn’t venture out much in public. Now, he’s ramping up appearances at community meetings, where residents may glimpse a man who does not belabor his time at the podium and balances his low-key personality with high ambitions for his department.
“Every fire ground you go to you can see certain things that could be done differently,” said Dean, who has won support in the union hall for showing up at scenes and visiting stations to chat with firefighters.
“I’m not interested in mistakes,” the chief said while surveying the U Street fire in December, “but how people react to challenges.”
Dean has encountered hurdles in his effort to turn around an agency that has struggled with delayed response times, equipment breakdowns and a shortage of paramedics.
The chief’s first big initiative in his plan for change — his effort to augment his beleaguered ambulance fleet by using private ambulances to transport non-urgent patients — has been bogged down in city hall despite council approval in October. And the department came under scrutiny when a man suffering a heart attack died this month after firefighters stopped at the wrong location, mistakenly thought another man was the patient they had come to help and then left without double-checking the call.
Although the chief has blamed some mistakes on human error, he said the department’s biggest issue is that it is not equipped to handle a growing number of calls for medical help. From 2010 to 2015, calls for fires have gone up about 10 percent, from 31,560 to 34,924. Calls for medical emergencies have soared 20 percent, from 130,870 to 162,168. On some days, at the busiest times, the District doesn’t have enough ambulances to get to everyone who dials 911.
Dean said adding private ambulances will allow city paramedics to focus more on the most serious medical calls. It will also allow time for members to be re-trained, ensuring that their skills are up-to-date and familiarity with department policy. And it will give the system time to upgrade or fix aging equipment.
Ultimately, Dean aims to change a culture among the department’s firefighters to enthusiastically and consistently embrace medical calls — which represents 80 percent of their traffic — in the same way they respond to burning buildings and crashes. It’s been a department priority for years, yet it continues to bedevil leaders, and there is stiff resistance from some members.
“When the bell hits, it’s the luck of the draw,” Dean said. “We expect you to go out and do the best you can. I’m not buying into the ‘I’m just here to fight fire.’ If they’re here to fight fires, they are about 20 years too late. The business is changing — sometimes there will be those who decide not to keep up, and they will have to make choices.”
Mayor Muriel D. Bowser (D) hired Dean early last year to replace the embattled Kenneth B. Ellerbe, who had retired the previous summer and whose tenure was defined by a string of failures. Some in the city council had labeled the department an embarrassment.
The new chief has already made changes. He has broadened the hiring pool to include applicants beyond the high school cadet program, which in recent years had supplied all recruits. He has ordered each of his battalion chiefs to get out of the District and visit other departments to research better ways to perform some tasks.
The chief is also bringing a nationally heralded lifesaving program from Seattle aimed at teaching thousands of residents CPR. Eventually nearly everybody could be able to save their neighbor suffering from a sudden heart attack.
Dean has also responded to shortcomings in individual incidents. When the man died after firefighters stopped at the wrong location, the department tightened policies to ensure calls can’t be aborted without additional checks.
This month, a firefighter accused of failing to respond to a choking child — before Dean took the job — filed papers to retire before facing possible sanctions. Although a new law bars retirement of firefighters with pending disciplinary hearings, the department said its administrative mistakes meant the law could not be imposed in this case. The department publicly admitted the failure, and Dean ordered steps to be taken so the law could take effect.
“We regret mistakes. We have not given up on finding ways to right what was done wrong here,” Dean said. “We own it. We are disappointed that we didn’t take care of business.”
Edward Smith, the president of the firefighters’ union, said Dean “has definitely shown a personal touch when interacting with firefighters.” He visits stations, Smith said, and “he shows up at fires. It means you have a leader who takes the time to show up in the middle of the night, in the freezing cold, to check up on everybody to make sure they’re okay.”
Smith said Dean has kept his promise to seek the union’s advice on policy, all but ending the harsh back-and-forth rhetoric of the past. He said he’s also seen an effort to bolster the ranks.
So far, according to the fire union, there is a new recruit class with 30 trainees close to graduating, with immediate plans to hire another 30 firefighters trained as paramedics. Some have been training and might be able to hit the streets faster than fresh recruits. And, Smith said, a class of cadets — recruits out of high school — is in the works for this year.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), a former chairman of the public safety committee, said he is pleased that Dean seems to have mended the rift with labor.
But, he said, many challenges lie ahead. Mendelson said he has reservations about privatizing ambulances for basic life-support calls, noting he just learned that the program will require the city to make a multimillion-dollar withdrawal from the reserve fund. Mendelson said he supports the move as a short-term fix, but “I really think that, in the long term, that function has to stay with [the fire department] and not be contracted out.”
Still, Mendelson said, “the fact the rank-and-file are with the chief, it gives him every opportunity to meet and to overcome the challenges that have been with this department for so long.”
Smith said Dean is still learning the District’s bureaucracy, pointing to the delay in hiring a private ambulance company. “We needed those ambulances yesterday,” he said.
Dean said the process was slowed down as officials came up with funding for the $9 million bill for this fiscal year, which was finalized last week. Although the delay was not ideal, Dean added that Bowser has invested more in reform of emergency medical services than any mayor in recent memory. The city hopes to have the program launched by spring.
Kevin Donahue, the deputy mayor for public safety, said Bowser chose Dean because he had dealt in Seattle with many of the same reform issues facing the District.
“The challenges that this department has didn’t develop overnight, and he knows that resolving those challenges is going to require time.”