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...
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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.