D.C. Council members asked the city's acting chief of fire and emergency medical services some hard-edge questions yesterday about how he would improve the department.
The questions were part of a D.C. Council Judiciary Committee hearing, one of the final steps in the confirmation process for acting Chief Adrian Thompson.
The Judiciary Committee will vote Feb. 25 on Chief Thompson's confirmation. If approved, the nomination will proceed to a full council vote in March.
Chief Thompson told the council yesterday that better use of emergency medical services personnel and more aggressive hiring of firefighters with emergency medical experience would improve staffing shortages, cut a swelling overtime budget and reduce ambulance response times.
He also said some of the department's most urgent needs, such as firetrucks and support vehicles, already have been met. Chief Thompson said a pilot program to improve the firefighters' 800-megahertz digital radios is working "pretty good" and that the department is prepared for a terrorist attack.
Still, Chief Thompson acknowledged he was taken "completely off guard" last year when he was told to trim more than $7 million from the department's 2003 budget to reduce the city's $323 million budget deficit.
Though more citywide cuts are expected in fiscal 2004, Chief Thompson said his budget has been trimmed to the "bare bones" and cannot withstand another round of cuts while trying to provide more extensive training.
"We cannot tolerate it," he said.
To close the fiscal 2003 budget gap, Chief Thompson ordered investigators in the fire marshal's office back on the streets as firefighters, suspended a pilot program that had paramedics riding fire engines and consolidated Engine 1 in Northwest, which used to house separate crews for a ladder truck and a fire engine.
Chief Thompson said he thinks Mayor Anthony A. Williams understands his position on the budget and what is needed to run the department effectively.
Lt. Ray Sneed, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association, who criticized the cuts, said Chief Thompson could do the job if given the proper resources.
"It is almost impossible for this chief or any chief to be successful when the funding for his department is based on the needs of the budget instead of the needs of the department," he said. Lt. Sneed also pledged his "support and assistance" to Chief Thompson but stopped short of offering a full endorsement.
Kenneth Lyons, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3721, which represents the city's medics, declined to offer his union's blessing.
"We're not in the business of endorsements," he said. "We have a wait-and-see mind-set."
Former Chief Thomas Tippett testified yesterday that the next chief must be a politician who can fight city administrators for the necessary resources.
Mr. Tippett resigned in 2000 after a budget dispute with the city's financial control board about placing a fifth firefighter on the department's ladder trucks.
Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat and Judiciary Committee chairman, asked Chief Thompson whether there was any issue on which he would "follow Chief Tippett out the door."
Chief Thompson paused for several seconds, then said, "If it would hinder our ability to provide service to the city, if it would jeopardize my workers, I would do what I have to do."
Several council members were still uncertain about whether Chief Thompson could resist micromanagement from the mayor's office, particularly on budget issues.
"If you are confirmed, who's going to be the fire chief: Adrian Thompson or [Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Margret] Kellems?" Mrs. Patterson asked.
Said Chief Thompson: "I will be the fire chief."
Mr. Thompson, a 32-year veteran of the department, would replace former Chief Ronnie Few, who resigned in May after inaccuracies were found in his resume and those of his three top appointees.