U.S. Secret Service officials yesterday acknowledged the existence of a recently formed White House unit with the capabilities of a fire-and-rescue company.
But the officials denied a report published in yesterday's edition of The Washington Times that the unit was formed to replace the duties of the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.
"If there were to be an emergency today, we would still call D.C. Fire and EMS," said Charles Bopp, a spokesman for the Secret Service.
The Times reported that the Secret Service had developed the fire-and-rescue unit to operate exclusively on the grounds of the White House and the vice president's mansion at the Naval Observatory in order to limit the access of D.C. fire personnel that lack security credentials.
Mr. Bopp yesterday confirmed to The Times that in the last few days the Secret Service had deployed a Rapid Intervention Safety and Command (RISC) unit staffed by uniformed Secret Service officers. He said the unit is capable of responding to chemical, biological and radiological threats; fire hazards; physical entrapments and other life-threatening emergencies.
But he said the unit's primary responsibility would be to function in the time between the outbreak of such emergencies and the arrival of the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department crews. Mr. Bopp said the RISC team is the latest version of what have been several teams with similar responsibilities.
"RISC will serve as a rapid intervention element helping to improve direct initial communications with responding D.C. Fire and EMS units, providing access, coordination and operational assistance to incidents affecting our protective zone," he said, adding that the D.C. fire department continues to serve "as the primary responders for every incident which they are requested to support."
But a public-safety official who previously told The Times about the details of the operation and the intention to limit the D.C. fire department's access to the White House grounds said yesterday that Mr. Bopp was telling only part of the story.
"For major crises, D.C. will be called in," said the official, who did not want to be identified. "But for day-to-day operations, they will be called less frequently."
The official had told The Times that the unit was formed to replace the duties of the D.C. fire department, whose traditional responsibilities have included responding to emergency calls at the executive mansion and standing by during takeoff and landing of Marine One, the presidential helicopter.
The official also told The Times that the Secret Service unit was instituted largely because of security concerns about D.C. fire personnel, who have not been required to undergo FBI background checks since 1992.
The background check currently used by D.C. fire officials only looks at the recruit's driving history and whether he or she has a criminal record.
In the past, D.C. firefighters were required to undergo a "public trust" background check, which looked into their driving records, checked for any criminal record and interviewed references and past associates.
Secret Service officials said the lack of security credentials for fire department personnel responding to emergencies at the White House was never considered.
James B. Martin, the assistant chief of operations at the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, said after a hastily scheduled meeting to address the report in The Times yesterday, Secret Service officials satisfied his concerns and that his department's role would not be diminished.
"The Secret Service assured us that the D.C. Fire and EMS Department will remain their primary responder," Chief Martin said. "They said the report caught them off guard, just like it did us."
Engine 16 and Truck 3, stationed at 1018 13th Street NW, had been designated as the first unit to respond to an emergency at the White House since the company's formation 100 years ago this month.