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Fix the fire department

(Published June 3, 2002)

Spending even one more penny on another costly national search for a new fire chief would be an outrageous waste of D.C. taxpayers' money.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams needs to invest that money - and much more - into fixing what ails the D.C. Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services. He can best start by reaching into the ranks and promoting a veteran D.C. firefighter who already knows the city and the department well enough to hit the ground running, and who can rally the understandably demoralized troops.

Departing Chief Ronnie Few's tenure should be proof enough that what's on someone's resume does not guarantee the skills required for the job. The mayor needs to start valuing proven performance by the many dedicated men and women who have devoted years of loyal service to the people of D.C. In many cases, the paper credentials they lack can be replaced with on-the-job training.

The revolving door at the fire chief's office - occupied by three chiefs since the end of 1999 - needs to be replaced with a solid structure. Stability requires that the mayor dedicate the needed resources for facilities, equipment, training and personnel to ensure that the public gets an exemplary response after calling 911.

The urgency to remedy the fire department's problems, exacerbated by recently heightened terrorism concerns, means there is no time to waste on a lengthy search for a new chief. Far too many people have died or been injured in recent years in situations that might have been prevented had the politicians only placed a high priority on funding and oversight to ensure that the best emergency service is available when needed.

The fire death of a 2-year-old girl in her Southeast Washington home on June 1 was another all-too-frequent reminder since the first of this year that not enough is being done to educate the public about fire prevention and safety.

Last week's collision on South Dakota Avenue NE, which destroyed one of the city's valuable firetrucks, points to many more problems - among them, an all-too-thin fleet of emergency vehicles that cannot be replaced immediately right off some sales lot.

Major equipment problems, especially the inadequate communications system, are legend within the department. The abject failure by the mayor and the council to correct these long-identified safety problems continues to endanger the lives of our city's brave public servants, as highlighted last week at a Fort Lincoln ceremony to honor two D.C. firefighters who perished while fighting a house fire there in 1999.

On May 20, witnesses say, it took more than 30 minutes to get an ambulance to the scene when a Metropolitan Police officer, responding to a call, tragically struck a 5-year-old boy in the 1300 block of Adams Street NE. The incident was yet another example of the inadequate staffing and deployment of the city's ambulance fleet. Despite official declarations to the contrary, recurring anecdotal evidence shows that ambulance response time remains deplorably - and inexcusably - slow.

Taxpayers deserve better service than this. The mayor and city council need to ensure NOW, not in the next budget cycle, that they get it.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator