This month, for a change, I have some good news to report. Engine 3, of the District of Columbia Fire Department, has been placed in service only three blocks from the U.S. Capitol Building. It’s important because the closing of Engine 3 came to symbolize everything bad that happened to DCFD in the last decade. And, the disaster in Washington is a horrible example of what has happened to many fire departments all across the country.
Until 1992, DCFD had been a very effective department. Its firefighters did a good job of protecting the lives and property of its citizens and the millions of people who work in or visit the nation’s capital. They operated 33 engine companies, 17 ladder trucks, four heavy rescue squads – with a staffing of five firefighters on every company – plus ambulances and support units, organized into eight battalions.
They were justifiably proud of their reputation as an aggressive firefighting force that made a fast interior attack and knocked down a fire before it could spread out of control. (As a member of Friendship Fire Association, which operates the DCFD rehab units, I personally saw them do it many times.)
But that was before the budget-cutters got a free hand. Unlike other cities, Washington depends heavily on the federal government for its money and the U.S. Congress became infected with the same brain fever that swept so many local governments in the last 20 years. Cutting taxes and reducing spending became their top priority. And, like so many others, the mayor and the city council saw the fire department as the place where they could get away with the most drastic budget cuts. In three years, DCFD’s annual budget was slashed 30%, from $104 million to $73 million.
The only group fighting to save the department was Local 36 of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). Retired firefighter Kenneth Cox, the union’s legislative lobbyist, had gained support in Congress and, prior to 1992, they frequently restored DCFD budget money that had been taken away by the city government.
Instead of being grateful for what Local 36 was trying to do, Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s non-voting member in Congress, reacted with hostility toward the firefighters. They rallied their congressional allies to fight for the sacred doctrine of home rule for the District of Columbia. At one point, Norton lashed out at DCFD’s friends in Congress, saying: “If you want to run a fire department, go run one in St. Mary’s county.” She added that DCFD was “one of the great featherbed fire departments in the United States.”
Incredibly, the news media bought the ridiculous story that Engine 3 – which was first due on Capitol Hill – was being kept in service only to protect the 535 members of Congress! Nothing was said about the thousands of people who work there every day and the millions of tourists who visit every year. But Mayor Kelly and Delegate Norton won that symbolic battle; Engine 3, which responded to more than 3,000 alarms a year, was closed down. Predictably, there was a huge jump in activity for adjacent companies and one nearby engine shot up to more than 10,000 runs per year!
Now the dismantling of the fire department was underway in full force. Staffing on engines and trucks was reduced from five to four firefighters; positions for two battalion chiefs, a deputy chief and all chief’s aides were abolished. Along with Engine 3, they closed a ladder truck and a rescue squad and cut support personnel. Within three years, the on-duty strength of each shift was down 25% – from 304 in 1992 to only 248 by 1995.
The result was a general deterioration of the entire department. Firehouses began to crumble, the repair shops were overwhelmed as engines, trucks and ambulances broke down. On every shift, companies took turns being rotated out of service to save more money. Morale plummeted, but dedicated firefighters struggled to do their job. No one else seemed to care when civilians died in a fire in a district where the first-due company had been rotated out of service.
It became a case history of how to wreck a fire department. There were weeks when almost half of the city’s ladder trucks were out of service with mechanical problems and no reserve rigs were available. One hectic night, I heard a battalion chief radio for help, but the dispatcher didn’t have a tower ladder to send to a roof fire. First-responder engine companies calling for medic units or basic ambulances constantly were told: “You’re on the waiting list when one becomes available.”
By now, most branches of the District government were dysfunctional, not just the fire department. Former mayor Marion Barry had been released from prison on a drug charge and won an election to replace Mayor Kelly. When reporters asked about the ladder trucks being out of service, the “new” Mayor Barry stupidly replied that the trucks were not important because “they don’t use the ladder at every fire.”
Then came the inevitable tragedies. After 13 years without a firefighter fatality, four suddenly died in the line of duty in three separate incidents. Investigators revealed that three of those deaths might have been avoided if there had been five-man ladder trucks, chief’s aides, proper command procedures, improved breathing apparatus and handheld radios that worked properly. DCFD had hit rock bottom.
The long road back began when Anthony Williams was elected mayor to succeed Barry. Finally, Washington appears to have a mayor who cares and understands the importance of the fire-rescue service. Four months ago, he appointed Thomas Tippett, a 30-year DCFD veteran and former union president, to be interim fire chief, with orders to expedite implementation of recommendations made by the investigators into those line-of-duty deaths.
A fifth firefighter already had been restored to the ladder trucks and Tippett intends to make the engines five-man companies. He has brought back the chief’s aides and forged ahead with other plans that include new radio equipment and SCBA with automatic PASS devices. He immediately purchased two mint-condition aerial ladders from Richmond, VA (which had switched to quints), to beef up DCFD’s thin fleet; four new ladder trucks, 16 engines and 17 ambulances will be delivered this year.
On the EMS front, Tippett has assigned a firefighter-paramedic to four engines with the long-range goal of making every unit a paramedic fire company. The entire department is being cross-trained for firefighting and emergency medical services. His goal is to have an ambulance in every firehouse to provide a fast and dependable response for a city whose EMS force always has been under-staffed and over-worked.
“We’re going back to the standards that never should have been lowered,” Tippett explains. “The changes that took place never were for operational reasons. They were budget driven and we suffered from it.”
Last month, Engine 3 and Medic 3 were back in their reopened station on New Jersey Avenue, responding to fire and EMS calls on Capitol Hill after an absence of almost seven years. It sent a signal that the fire department is coming back from the disaster inflicted upon it by Congress and its own political leaders.
There are lessons for everyone to learn from the fall and rise of the District of Columbia Fire Department. It shows how firefighters and the citizens they protect can be endangered when elected officials disregard all warnings and engage in a reckless frenzy to cut budgets. What happened in the nation’s capital was a disgrace and it has happened in cities all over America. Hopefully, DCFD’s new era will show that it’s possible to come back – IF political leaders understand the fire-rescue service and are willing to give a fire chief the resources to do the job.
Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a retired political director for ABC News in Washington and served for 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is an honorary member of Local 36, IAFF.