Pulling the alarm on D.C. fire
An auditor’s report finds that the department has failed to fix many critical problems.
THE FAMILY of journalist David E. Rosenbaum, who died after getting shoddy treatment from D.C. emergency personnel, made a deal with the city. The family would drop its $20 million lawsuit if the District would fix the problems that led to Mr. Rosenbaum’s death. Nearly eight years later, the city’s failure to fulfill the agreement is worse than embarrassing; it’s cause for alarm about a department that serves critical needs. The city’s newly installed fire chief has work to do.
A report released last week by D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson found that the city has implemented or partially implemented only 17 of 36 recommendations made by a task force formed in the aftermath of Mr. Rosenbaum’s 2006 death. One of the most glaring failures has been in crosstraining firefighters and paramedics, so-called dual-role providers, to produce a “fully integrated, all hazards agency.” A result of that failure is that even as the city’s population has increased, the number of emergency responders has decreased.
That the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department was found wanting is unfortunately not a big revelation. There’s a long history of issues with response times, equipment failures and fighting between unions and management. The 2014 death of Medric Cecil Mills Jr., who was refused help from fire station personnel near where he collapsed, highlighted a lackadaisical approach to emergency care in a department that traditionally put firefighting first— even though the majority of calls are for emergency medical care.
If there is a bright spot, it’s the arrival of former Seattle fire chief Gregory Dean to take over the department. Chief Dean, who for 10 years headed a department widely recognized as the gold standard for emergency care, started work in D.C. last month and has wasted no time making medical care a priority. He has increased the number of ambulances during peak demand hours and recreated the position of assistant chief for emergency medical services. What’s most encouraging about the appointment, with a confirmation hearing set for June 30, is his familiarity with a department that uses dual-role providers. If he too fails to integrate the District’s fractured department, it probably can’t be done. It would then be time to revisit whether the department should be split by function into a unit dedicated to firefighting and one dedicated to emergency medical services.