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Union: Fire department ‘not priority’ to mayor

(Published June 14, 1999)


Staff Writer

The deaths of two D.C. firefighters at the end of last month have drawn harshly worded criticism of the fire department’s readiness from the head of the firefighters’ union and the fire chief has opened an investigation to discover what caused those deaths.

Ray Sneed, president of the firefighters’ union, blames Congress, city council and the mayor for not assisting in needed rebuilding of the fire department.

"I am convinced the city firefighters are not on the mayor’s list of essential priorities," Sneed said at a June 9 press conference.

Firefighters Anthony Phillips and Lewis Matthews were fatally injured while fighting a townhouse fire May 30 in Northeast Washington. Phillips died that day from smoke inhalation and Matthews died the following day from burns. Their deaths came just over 18 months after another firefighter, Sgt. John Carter, was killed battling a blaze in a grocery store in Northwest Washington. Carter was the first D.C. firefighter who died in the line of duty in 13 years.

After Carter’s death, the fire department assembled a team to reconstruct the events leading up to his death. The committee issued a report with 16 pages of recommendations for improving communications and safety procedures. Sneed and other firefighters have said nearly none of those recommendations have been implemented.

Fire Chief Donald Edwards has ordered a similar reconstruction committee to investigate the deaths of Phillips and Matthews. Firefighter Joseph Morgan Jr. also was critically injured in that blaze, suffering burns over 60 percent of his body. He remains in critical condition at Washington Hospital Center.

Sneed said the department’s on-duty strength has declined since 1992 by nearly a third, from 304 to 230 firefighters per shift. He also said the department is operating with a critical shortage of reserve trucks and engines.

The fire department has suffered from cost-cutting measures by the council in the mid-1980s and again in the mid-1990s that have reduced the size of the department and have also led to the deterioration of the department’s facilities and equipment, he said.

"It should be obvious to our elected officials that there are problems in the D.C. fire department, created by the budget reductions, that have brought us to this point," Sneed said.

The department’s budget was increased by about $10 million in fiscal 2000, but most of that increase is earmarked to hire 64 new emergency medical technicians, not more firefighters. The report on Carter’s death recommended adding a fifth man to every truck company in the city as did a public safety report written by one of the mayor’s transition teams.

Battalion Chief Stephen Reid, a fire department spokesman, said the fire chief has already met with the city administrator to discuss the issues Sneed brought up.

Some firefighters have expressed concern over the lack of training facilities in the District. The department, for example, has been without a "burn building" where they can practice fire-fighting tactics for over a decade. District firefighters currently have to travel to Alexandria to use their burn building, Reid said.

Reid said the department recently held mandatory "back to basics" courses for firefighters. The refresher courses covered topics ranging from procedures for laying hose lines to search and rescue techniques. Reid said firefighters will be required to attend similar courses periodically, but he said it has not been decided yet how frequently they will have to take the courses.

Memorial funds have been established for the families of Firefighters Anthony Phillips and Louis Matthews. Contributions to the Phillips’ family fund may be sent to NationsBank, Landover Hills Banking Center, Landover Hills, MD 20784, account number 003920847874. Contributions to the Matthews’ family fund may be sent to Crestar Bank, 145 New York Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20005, account number 860 268 640.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator