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In the April issue, this column optimistically reported on how the District of Columbia's acting fire chief was making progress in bringing his department back from the devastation caused by years of reckless budget cuts, Unfortunately, he ran head-on into a political and financial brick wall that wrecked his plans and prompted him to resign. Now, the DCFD is back in trouble and the high hopes of its firefighters have been replaced by anger, despair and frustration.
Chief Thomas N. Tippett suddenly resigned when the financial control board that supervises the city's budget rejected his actions in restoring a fifth firefighter to ladder companies and bringing back the position of aides to battalion chiefs. Tippett had made these and other moves to implement recommendations that came out of the investigations of two fires that had taken the lives of three firefighters.
A veteran of 32 years on the DCFD and a former union president, Tippett had been named "interim" chief last December after the previous chief resigned under pressure from Mayor Anthony Williams for not moving fast enough to bring about the changes recommended in those reports. The mayor gave Tippett a mandate to end the delays and promised to back him up with the financial and political support he needed to make things happen.
It was a formidable task. Over a period of several years, the DCFD's annual budget had been slashed 30% and its manpower cut by 25%. The staffing of engine and truck companies had been reduced from five to four, battalion chiefs' aides were eliminated, several companies had been closed while apparatus, stations and equipment fell into disrepair. The fire department - which had been one of the few local agencies that did its job - was in danger of becoming as dysfunctional as the rest of the city government.
Tippett moved quickly and decisively to carry out his mandate from the mayor. He used $4 million that had been budgeted for overtime to pay for the restoration of the fifth man on the department's 16 ladder trucks and the six battalion aides positions. His proposed 2001 budget included a request for an additional $6 million to fund these positions on a permanent basis. He reopened a busy firehouse that had been closed and proceeded with plans to cross-train the entire department for firefighting and EMS, create paramedic engine companies and expand the overworked emergency ambulance service. A massive order for new apparatus, improved SCBAs and other safety equipment was to be delivered by the end of the year.
Firefighter morale, which had been at a low ebb, picked up as Tippett made his moves. In just the last few months, there were several fires in which the fifth truckmen had made a difference in rescuing the occupants of smoke-filled buildings and at least two incidents in which battalion chiefs' aides had spotted danger and relayed critical information that prevented firefighters from being injured or killed.
There was grumbling from some city council members who want to continue saving money at the expense of the fire department and use if for other projects, or to build up the city's cash reserve, or to give the citizens an election-year tax cut. But the real trouble came when Mayor Williams went to the financial control board with a request that they re-program this year's budget to provide funds for the additional truckmen and chiefs' aides. They turned him down and Tippett immediately resigned - as he had warned he would do if they didn't provide the money.
In his letter of resignation, Tippett pointed out that understaffed ladder trucks and the lack of chiefs' aides had been cited in two fire reports as being "major factors that may have contributed to firefighter fatalities." He added: "I have made a solemn promise to the firefighters of this city and to their families that I would do everything in my power to improve safety and not unnecessarily place my employees in harm's way. Therefore, I cannot in good faith carry out the directive."