Pulling the alarm on D.C. fire

An au­di­tor’s re­port finds that the depart­ment has failed to fix many crit­i­cal prob­lems.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

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.

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