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Chief Ronnie Few had big plans to reform the D.C. Fire Department. Then the cold water started pouring.
Photographs by Pilar Vergara
On a bright Thursday morning outside a nondescript brick building near Howard University, a small crowd of politicos, police officers, and journalists is gathered on a plot of grass to hear Mayor Anthony A. Williams give a speech. His remarks are not, by any means, going to be scintillating. Williams is here to declare that the city’s new 911 emergency call centera project 15 years in the makingis finally open for business.
Reporters don’t usually flock to ribbon-cutting ceremonies. But because of the ongoing frenzy over missing intern Chandra Levy and the fact that Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Chief Charles H. Ramsey is at the proceedings, the journalists have come out to pepper the top cop with questions about the case.
Williams, wearing a brown-checked summer suit and his characteristic bow tie, approaches the podium and looks around at the officials arrayed in folding chairs. Besides Ramsey, Deputy Mayor Margret Kellems, D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, and D.C. Council Chair Linda Cropp are in place. And sitting next to Ramsey is an awkward-looking fellow whose face is still not as familiar as the others’, the low man on the District’s managerial totem polethe new leader of the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. Chief Ronnie Few.
The mayor starts in on his acknowledgments. “I want to thank Deputy Mayor Kellems,” Williams says, “and Bob Watkins of the control board…and Congresswoman Norton…and the city council…and the hardest-working chief in the country, Chief Ramsey!” Williams pauses as city workers in the audience outside the Public Safety Communications Center begin applauding.
“And our fire chief is here,” Williams finally says. “And I see he’s neatly dressed and nicely groomed.” With that, Williams pauses again. This time, though, it’s to wait for people to
One year into his controversial tenure as fire chief, Few, 48, has become a laugh line of sorts in D.C. government circles, although what he’s been doing since he took the job is anything but funny. Few arrived under a cloud that followed him from his previous job in Augusta, Ga.; he has clashed sharply with the firefighters’ union over proposed reforms; and he’s been portrayed as diffident and standoffish by his menall of which have made him into something of a public curiosity. But what’s gotten Few the most attention has been his blunt attempt to enforce the fire department’s 4-year-old grooming policy. Hence the mayor’s jokeand the laughter.
In May, Few, following the policy’s standards, suspended all firefighters whose hair was too long and unkempt (read: dreadlocks) and whose beards were too long. But the American Civil Liberties Union, representing four firefighters who kept long hair or beards for religious reasons, took the city to court over the action. A federal judge promptly ruled in favor of the employees, saying the dismissals “very clearly” violated the firefighters’ rights under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a federal law.
To some critics, the suspensions were a sign that Few was ill-prepared to command a big-city urban workforce. Before he came to Washington, Few presided over a much smaller fire department in Augusta. His experience prior to that was more or less confined to East Point, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, where he grew up and enlisted in the fire department, eventually becoming chief.
Even though Few’s lawyers argued in court that long hair and beards compromised the firefighters’ safety because their headgear wouldn’t fit snugly, the chief wrote in a memo, “It is important for our members to project a positive public image that is consistent with the wearing of uniforms.” In Few’s defense, the District’s has long been one of only a handful of big-city fire departments without strict hair and beard standards.
“His lawyers should have advised him better,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, who chairs the council’s Judiciary Committee, which monitors the fire department. “They didn’t look at federal law. That’s a pretty big thing to miss….No one should be taking illegal personnel action.”
Asked to assess Few’s performance a year into the job, Patterson chooses her words carefully. “I’d give him a mixed review,” Patterson says. “I think he’s trying to do a good job. I think his efforts to unify a department that’s been fractured are well-intended.”
After the mayor speaks at the dedication ceremony, Ramsey and Few deliver brief remarks in turn, devoting most of their words to thanking city employees for the spiffy new 911 facility. (The center is indeed striking: Lined with computers, operators in headsets, digital clocks, and other flashing signs, it has the feel of a NASA control room.) Many police officers are present, and Ramsey praises them individually, singling out leaders of the MPD’s dispatch team. Few, by contrast, has almost no one from his department here. He commends his dispatch unit for performing under awful working conditions, but he doesn’t laud any individuals for their contributions.
The next day, on an online bulletin board supported by the firefighter union’s Web site, an unidentified firefighter pillories Few for not having been a better cheerleader:
[O]ur fearless leader is at it again. Yesterday, a ceremony was held to dedicate the new combined Fire/EMS and MPD Communications facility on McMillan Drive. Chief Ramsey of MPD had a huge command contingent on hand, and acknowledged all of the key personnel (by name) in his agency who had worked so tirelessly to make the facility happen. OUR chief, without any other senior staff person on hand, followed Chief Ramsey and did not acknowledge a single individual, even though the Fire/EMS Communications personnel have worked far longer, and with FAR fewer resources, than MPD.
Does [the University of the District of Columbia] offer remedial management courses?
Ramsey and Few are truly a study in contrasts. Ramsey is built like a bulldog: short, sturdy, and compact, with big eyeglasses and freckles. A former top cop in Chicago, Ramsey is impressive and reassuring on television, his voice confident and steady.
Few, on the other hand, is tall and birdlike, with a small head, closely cropped graying hair, a nub of a chin, and a left eye he squints as he’s thinking things through. He walks at a 45-degree angle, his head leading the rest of his body; he talks in a soupy Southern drawl; and he sometimes rambles on for what can seem like way too long. His sentences, in fact, are sometimes completely unrecognizable, sabotaged by his accent and his tendency to mash his words slowly into each other. Critics try to use Few’s Forrest Gump-ishness to suggest that he’s stupid, which he clearly is not.
“This department has a lot of problems,” Few says softly, when asked about his first year in the District. “And it didn’t get this way in five or six years. It happened because of 30 years of neglect. I’ll be honest with you: When I took this job, a lot of people said the D.C. Fire Department can’t change. Well, it is gonna change. I’m gonna get this job done. I will not fail. I’m not a quitter.”
The fire department Few took over on July 10, 2000, suffered manifold and worrisome troubles. One signature dispatching mistake occurred in 1998, when emergency crews were sent to the U.S. Capitol after an armed man had begun shooting at people, but the dispatching computer couldn’t determine the right location of the Capitol building. The medical teams arrived 300 feet from where they should have been.
Dispatching confusion might have contributed to the death of a young jogger who collapsed on 16th Street NW in July 1999, just a few hundred feet from a fire station (“Call for Help,” 2/9). And yet another foul-up occurred three months ago, when emergency crews spent half an hour trying to find a 69-year-old New Jersey woman in need of rescue on the Mall. She had been visiting the FDR Memorial on a Saturday when she was struck with chest pain and had trouble breathing. Once again, the dispatching system couldn’t determine the precise location of a major Washington landmark, and the ambulance was sent three blocks in the wrong direction. The woman began having seizures and went into cardiac arrest as she waited for the emergency crew. A firetruck arrived with a defibrillator, but none of the firefighters knew how to use it. (One U.S. Park Police officer did, and he began to administer help.) The emergency crew, meanwhile, began driving around the Mall looking for the patient, as the firefighters on the scene tried to direct them. “Swing back around,” one implored over the radio. “We’re across from you.” Finally, the National Park Police directed one of their helicopters to the scene to airlift the woman to Washington Hospital Center, where she ultimately recovered.
Statistics show that the District’s fire department is underperforming in other key areas as well. Fire-related injuries to civilians are up. Firetrucks and residential vehicles are frequently damaged in wrecks and other mistakes. An ambulance in the District takes an average of 11 minutes and 21 seconds to get to the scene of a call; nationally, the average is 5 minutes and 40 seconds.
Officials contend that the new 911 center should eventually reduce dispatch errors and improve response times. But meanwhile, the fire-training academy is falling apart (a new one is under construction), and there has been rampant cheating on recent tests. What’s more, the agency is paralyzed by cost overruns, outdated equipment, employee shortages, and anemic morale, which plummeted in 1999 after three firefighters died in separate incidents in just two months. Before that, the department had lost only one firefighter in 11 years.
It all adds up to a troubled fire department profoundly different from the one Few left in Augusta, where he was the first black fire chief. Under Few, the Augusta-Richmond County fire service was by all accounts well-run, with modern equipment and a successful performance record. But it was downright Lilliputian compared with the District’s fire service: It had 320 employees; D.C. has 1,900. Few used to oversee 19 fire stations; now he’s in charge of 33. His Augusta budgets verged on $14 million; Few just submitted a budget to the D.C. Council almost 10 times that size.
Moreover, Augusta-Richmond County didn’t deliver emergency medical carethat was farmed out to a private company. The District’s fire department is a hybrid of fire and emergency medical services, although emergency medical care accounts for 80 percent of the department’s workload. In Augusta, Few’s firefighters didn’t work under a union contract; the firefighters’ union in D.C. plays a fierce role in labor negotiationsand gets involved in many day-to-day operational matters.
When Few was being vetted for the D.C. post, the D.C. Council wrestled with his prior experience: Was he qualified to run a department so much bigger and more complicated than the one he would leave? Ultimately, the council voted 11 to 2 to ratify Williams’ selection of Few. Councilmembers Sharon Ambrose and Carol Schwartz gave the chief a thumbs-down. “I do not believe Chief Few has the requisite comparable experience to head the fire department,” Schwartz said at the time.
Not surprisingly, Few, an unknown quantity in D.C. until last year, wasn’t the firefighters’ first choice for chief. That distinction belonged to Thomas N. Tippett. In December 1999, Williams promoted Tippett, a deputy chief, to run the department temporarily because there was a sudden vacancy at the helm. Don Edwards, the former chief, had been forced out after it was revealed that he was living primarily in Maryland, in contravention of a rule requiring D.C. cabinet-level officials to live in the District.
Tippett was spectacularly popular among the city’s firefighters. (His name was even tossed around as a possible candidate for mayor.) At one time, Tippett was president of the union, which is known alternately as Local 36 and the Firefighters Association. As a search committee sought out a permanent chief, Tippett was considered a shoo-in.
But after just four months on the job, Tippett unexpectedly resigned in a huff. He had gone to the financial control board to request additional funds to place a fifth firefighter on all ladder trucks. The control board rebuffed his request, and Tippett immediately quit. With Tippett suddenly out of the running, the search committee continued its work, and it eventually nominated Few for the post. Still, Tippett’s departure was a major letdown for many of the fire department’s officers, particularly the union leadership.
“They didn’t want anybody but Tippett to lead the department,” Few says of the union. “They didn’t want somebody who was independent. But I’m nobody’s boy.”
After months of tension, particularly over the issue of how to overhaul emergency medical services within the department, relations between Few and the president of the Firefighters Association, Lt. Raymond Sneed, have essentially collapsed. The two men are engaged in an ugly turf warwhich means that they barely speak to each other, sometimes call each other names, and try to triangulate around each other by lobbying councilmembers and reaching out to leaders of other labor organizations. The timing for this meltdown is unfortunate, given that the District’s labor negotiators are currently trying to hammer out a new contract with Sneedand given that whatever reforms Few hopes to accomplish will require the powerful union’s support.
Local 36 represents virtually every one of the District’s 1,200 firefighters. And among the rank and file, Sneed’s pull is considerable. By contrast, many firefighters sneer at Few as an outsider; he is only the second chief in the force’s history to be chosen from outside the department’s ranks. And it can’t be overstated how much firefighters see their own lives hinging on the chief’s decisionsor lack of them. They work, after all, in one of the world’s deadliest professions. They speak regularly of brotherhood, camaraderie, and loyalty. The firefighters, who are sworn into duty once they complete their training, see their job as something solemn. And many seem to rely on instinct, rumor, emotion, and groupthink in forming opinions about a chief and his policies.
Few is also trying to buck another historical trend: The District, like many cities, has had a hard time retaining fire chiefs. When Few was hired, he was the fourth department leader that the city had enlisted in one-and-a-half years. Over the same period, the union and its leadership have been stable, one of the few constants in a roiling department.
“Look, the fire chief is not my concern,” Sneed says. “They come and they go. The national life span of a fire chief is five years. I gotta worry about the safety of my officers.”
The day after U.S. District Judge James Robertson ruled against the chief’s grooming policy, Few is visiting Engine Company 15, a firehouse in Anacostia. The stationwhich sports the nickname “Hell’s Kitchen” because of its historically shabby cooking facilityis hosting an open house for the neighborhood. The station’s two gleaming red firetrucks are parked, the three garage doors are wide open, and tables are laden with grilled hot dogs, burgers, soda, and lollipops. But a lot of the food remains untouched, because barely anyone from the community has dropped by, essentially leaving Few alone to hobnob with the firehouse’s crew.
Few barely interacts with the workers, however. He stays close to the small entourage of officers he came with, while the firefighters and emergency medical workers dot the station in their own little clusters. Some clearly work to avoid the chief. One officer approaches me and asks quietly, “Hey, you writing a hit piece on Chief Few?”
“No,” I say.
“That’s too bad,” he sighs, and he walks away.
I get a tour of Hell’s Kitchen. The garage is clean and organized, the dispatch room hums, and the kitchen, though filled with old appliances and cookware, is functional. The drab men’s locker room, filled with dozens of rusting lockers, has an adequate bathroom and shower area. The sleeping quarters, though, are surprisingly dismal.
One firefighter is asleep when I enter the square, cinder-block room, and the fluorescent lights are buzzing brightly. The sleeping man is tucked under a comforter on one of 12 sheetless mattresses. The mattresses and metal bed frames were donated by St. Elizabeths Hospital, and, stained with age and fitted with plastic head- and footboards, they look unmistakably like old hospital beds. The workers rely on donations and whatever they contribute themselves for most of the station’s creature comfortsfrom the microwave to the blankets.
In this room, it’s not hard to understand why the firefighterswho work 24-hour shiftswere so perturbed when Few chose to regulate what they wore to sleep. In April, Few directed all station employees to dress in conforming T-shirts and boxers when they were ready for bed. The chief said the move was in response to a complaint by a firefighter who thought some of his colleagues were not sleeping in enough clothing.
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Few promised to pay for the new attire. But like many firehouses, Hell’s Kitchen hasn’t received its supply of sleepwear yet. The firefighters, meanwhile, consider the regulation patronizing, an odd attempt to impose unity, and, worse yet, a waste of money. (The chief will have to spend about $30,000 to outfit all his officers with sleepwear.) Besides, the firefighters usually sleep in their clothes, because they have to be ready to run out the door at a moment’s notice, they say. To needle Few, they refer to the sleepwear as “pajamas.”
“He’s worrying about sleepwear? It’s a joke,” snarls one firefighter. “Everywhere I go, people ask me about it. It’s an embarrassment.”
When I mention the tensions over the “pajamas” to Chief Few, he grows annoyed. He walks over to a closet in his office, pulls out a matching dark blue T-shirt and shorts, and shakes the outfit in front of me. “This is simplea simple change,” he declares. “One of the things the union makes a big deal of. What’s not to like about it? Any department would be happy to have these.”
The sleepwear controversy is not Few’s only attempt to impose clothing regulations. He recently tried to force firefighters to wear only department-issued boots and helmets on the job. But the firefighters were outraged by the attemptit would have meant that they could no longer use leather fireproof gear many had bought themselves and that was usually superior to what they were given. After hearing the gripes, the chief modified the order to allow most of the equipment that the firefighters wanted to continue wearing.
Few seems particularly focused on public relations. Namely, his actions indicate that he believes cosmetic uniformity will go a long way toward improving his agency’s performance, even if the firefighters and emergency medical workers are turned off by his efforts. In addition to revamping the sleepwear code and trying to impose the grooming policy, the chief has made “customer relations” one of his biggest priorities. All department employees have been sent to customer-service seminars, and all telephones have to be answered according to a script he drafted.
Few also frequently mentions how the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department is perceived across the country. It’s important to him to transform that perception. “When people think about great fire departments, people think about Phoenix, Atlanta, even Fairfax,” he says. “We don’t have a lot to hang our hats on. People don’t speak about the D.C. Fire Department, but they will.”
For a man so concerned about image, however, Few is strangely negligent of his own within the department. He dismisses what bad feelings there are by saying, “I’m not here to win any popularity contests.”
But Few’s unpopularity among many of his employees isn’t entirely because of his small-town experience, Southern demeanor, administrative decrees, and strained relationship with the union boss. Few came to the District last year just as a scandal involving his old fire department was erupting. He remains a focus of an ongoing Georgia grand-jury probe.
Few and the Augusta-Richmond fire department are under investigation for the way they handed out raises and promotions. According to Glenn Rowland, an investigator in the Augusta-Richmond County district attorney’s office, “they may have been promoting blacks over whites.” The probe is also looking into whether race was used to calculate wage hikes, with blacks allegedly receiving bigger pay increases than whites. An internal probe cleared Few of any misdeeds last year, but the grand jury is still looking at the disparity.
In addition, Few’s role as host of a meeting of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters in Augusta is being scrutinized. Members of the Augusta-Richmond department were allegedly dabbling in union-related business during the meeting. Conducting such union work at a restricted gathering is against the law.
Few has strongly denied that he did anything wrong. “I can assure you there is no wrongdoing,” he told the D.C. councilmembers at his confirmation hearing last year. “I can assure you I will not be indicted on anything.”
Yet some in the rank and file are scarcely placated. “There’s no confidence in this fire chief,” says one D.C. firefighter with 16 years on the job, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He’s not addressing what needs to be addressed. He’s worried about the little things. Everybody is afraid of what he’ll do next.”
As the Hell’s Kitchen open house is close to wrapping up, it starts pouring rain outside. A woman from the neighborhood, one of the few visitors to show up, walks over to Capt. Lawrence Schultz, one of the engine company’s commanders. Schultz is a stocky man with a goatee and close-cropped hair. He looks friendly and approachable. He is clearly well-liked in the firehouse. “Excuse me,” the woman says, “but I have to ask you something. My oldest son wants to be a firefighter, and I’m so scared.”
“This department trains you very well, ma’am,” Schultz says warmly, trying to put the woman at ease. “There’s great people on this team. We’re one of the safest fire departments. The job is very dangerous. But the training you get is really excellent.”
“Thanks,” she says, her voice fluttering. “That makes me feel a little better, I guess. But I don’t know what to do. I’m one of those mothers that worry about everything. I almost get afraid just thinking of my son crossing the street.”
With that, she walks off holding a balloon and a grilled hamburger, oblivious to the worries of the firefighters about the leadership of their department.
Lt. Raymond Sneed walks through the open door of his wood-paneled office on the second floor of an AFL-CIO union building on Bladensburg Road in Northeast and approaches his messy desk. He starts reading his telephone messages and memos, when suddenly he blurts out: “What? What’s wrong with that man? He thinks he canWhen did Brian leave this?” Sneed appears to be calling to his secretary, but he’s not speaking loudly enough for her to hear. “I can’t believe this. He tries to go to one of my deputies. Well, he can’t work that way. This is bullshit.”
What’s bothering Sneed is that Few has stopped by the fire station where Capt. Brian Lee, a union official, works, and tried to speak with him about preparations for next month’s meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Few is determined to keep the anticipated demonstrations from burying his department, and he’s demanded that every firefighter and emergency medical service worker be available for duty. Sneed interprets Few’s visit to Lee as an attempt by the chief to work around himyet another of Few’s perceived insults.
“My chief is anti-union,” Sneed says, slicing the air with his hands. “He doesn’t understand the issues. I think the problems are overwhelming him. He’s in over his head.”
Relations between Sneed and Few were not always radioactive. After Tippett resigned, Sneed, who served on the mayor’s committee to find a new chief, endorsed Few for the job. Sneed didn’t come to this opinion quickly. The committee grilled the candidates during lengthy interview sessions as many as four different times. Out of a group of 15 contenders, the committee pared the possibilities to seven, then four, and then, when Tippett withdrew his name, three.
Few was considered a strong candidate because, in Georgia, he had overseen department reorganizations and had placed a priority on purchasing modern equipment and improving training.
“I thought Few would be the best,” Sneed explains. “None measured up to Tippett, but Few’s credentials were good. He said the right things at the interviews.”
When Williams picked Few to run the department, Sneed befriended him. He even flew down to Augusta during the July Fourth weekenda couple of days before Few was to start his new jobto brief Few on the ups and downs of the department.
“I wanted him to hit the ground running,” Sneed recalls. “We could take a chief coming from the outside, but we didn’t need someone to take the department in a new direction. We needed someone to bring the department back on track.”
For the next few months, the two kept in close contact. They spoke regularlytwo or three times a day, by Sneed’s estimation. Then, Few began to reshuffle upper management and hire outside consultants. In October, Few followed through on a promise he had made during his interviews to put five firefighters on all fire trucks. But a month later, the department was pummeled with a $4.5 million budget shortfall. The woes erupted mostly from soaring overtime costs. To grapple with the deficit, Few did things that irritated the union leadership. He cut back officer training from 22 weeks to 18. And he eliminated the fifth firefighter on three trucksthe very thing that Tippett had staked his career on.
“Those positions were budgeted for,” Sneed says. “There was a total disregard for my contract.”
By last spring, things had deteriorated further, as Few dispensed edicts on how to answer phones, what the firefighters could wear to bed, and which boots they could put on when running into a burning building. Then Few began putting entire trucks out of service on a rotating basis so that he could reduce his labor costs.
“If you think I’d sit back and let this chief run the department when safety is at stake, you’re dreaming,” Sneed says. “I had to go to the funerals. I had to talk to the families.”
Sneed adds: “The fire chief is one person. We are the fire department. Despite all the policies, we have to implement them.”
The D.C. Fire Department is more than just the firefighters, though. It also provides emergency medical care. In fact, the bulk of the fire department’s workload is not dealing with fires at allit’s responding to medical emergencies. But the department’s culture is one in which the medical side and the fire side have been at odds for three decades. The medical workersa force of civilian paramedics and emergency medical technicianshave traditionally described themselves as the department’s stepchildren.
Few has tried to change that perception. In particular, he has met on several occasions with the union representing the department’s 600 medical-service workerswhich includes the paramedics and the lesser-trained emergency medical techniciansto hear the medics’ concerns. These meetings with the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 3721, had a divisive outcome: They further alienated some firefighters.
“Where he comes from, emergency medical services was sourced out,” says Kenneth Lyons, the president of the medical-services union. “But he has been a lot more sympathetic to this local than any other fire chief. He’s willing to sit down and listen to our issues.”
Still, Lyons has his own beef with Few. The chief has strongly endorsed a staffing program known as “dual-role cross-training”which, incidentally, Sneed supports. With dual-role cross-training, firefighters are trained to provide emergency medical care and medics are trained to work as firefighters.
The idea is to make better use of firetrucks, which are sent to investigate every call the department receives, regardless of the type of emergency. Yet firefighters often can do little when they encounter a scene in which urgent medical attention is needed. They end up standing idle, waiting for the medics to arrive and resolve the situation.
Attempting to create uberfirefighters bothers Lyons, though. He says that when push comes to shove, cross-trained workers wouldn’t be competent, because it’s far too difficult to be both a firefighter and a paramedic. Not only would acquiring this vast medley of skills require hours of education, but maintaining those skills would be overwhelming. Ongoing training is a necessity in both fields, and there wouldn’t be enough hours available for one person to continue to hone skills as both a firefighter and a medical professional, Lyons contends.
“It’s going to fall apart,” he says. “Paramedics starting next year will have to have a two-year certification. These jobs require a lot of training.”
Officials argue that the program would save money because professionals trained in both sets of skills would reduce overtime costs even as they were paid more. Few believes the savings could be as much as $4 million. Moreover, proponents of the idea say a versatile force would improve response timesespecially because the department receives far more medical calls than fire calls. Compared with ambulances, firetrucks have a superior performance record. Once dispatched, trucks get to the scene of an emergency within 6 minutes, but District ambulances, on average, take more than 11 minutes. The D.C. Council, which must approve the training initiative, is expected to consider it this fall.
Even without formal approval, the department has already begun phasing in a system that looks a lot like dual-role cross-training. Six of the department’s 33 stations have firetrucks that are fitted with medical equipment. The teams on these trucks are called “paramedic companies” and consist of four firefighters and a paramedic.
Lyons considers the paramedic companies a dangerous approach because they are relied on to handle medical emergencies, but are, he argues, insufficient for the job. With only one paramedic available and a retrofitted firetruck, proper medical attention can’t be administered, he says.
“We’re dumbfounded that they are continuing with this program,” Lyons says. “This is going to cost money and human life.”
Erik Gaull, director of operational improvements in the city administrator’s office, doesn’t agree. He is a member of the Emergency Medical Services Advisory Committee, a government-appointed group looking into how medical care in the District can be improved. Previously, Gaull worked for a Virginia-based consulting company that, in 1997, examined the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department for the control board. He was in charge of scrutinizing the medical side. The consultants submitted a 150-plus-page report that debated numerous problems. A later report by the consultants suggested various remedies, one of which was to cross-train the firefighters and medics.
“The national trend is to put paramedics on engine companies,” Gaull says. “This will increase medical first response by having more paramedics distributed over a wider area.”
For his part, Few wants to morph all firetruck units into paramedic companies. If he manages to do so, it will amount to a clear political victory: By putting four firefighters and a cross-trained paramedic on each firetruck, the sticky fifth-firefighter issue would be defused.
Knowing of Few’s emphasis on customer service, I’m taken aback by how poorly I’m received the day I go to visit him at his office. The fire department’s headquarters is housed in a former school building on Vermont Avenue, across from the U Street Metro station. When I enter the building, the two security guards at the desk ignore me. I have to ask for help before they even acknowledge I’m there.
Then, after they have me sign in, they tell me Few’s office is on the second floor. Without giving me any directions, they watch as I board the elevator. Inside, I push at buttons to try to get the elevator to go up, but it doesn’t. After a few moments, I notice that you need a key to get the elevator to move.
I exit the car and say, “You didn’t tell me you need a key to work the elevator.”
“You can take the stairs,” one of the guards offers dismissively, pointing at the stairwell across from her desk.
As I enter the chief’s headquarters, the receptionist looks surprised to see me and asks who I am. “I wonder why no one [from downstairs] called up?”
The upstairs reception area is adorned with several large portraits of former fire chiefs. It doesn’t take long for Few to come out. He pumps my hand warmly before bringing me into his office.
The room is spacious and, save for a few boxes, a desk, and a round meeting table, it’s largely empty. That’s because Few is having it renovated. As part of this makeover, he had a large white, yellow, and navy D.C. Fire and EMS Department logo emblazoned on the cream carpet near the door.
Of the huge emblem, he says, “These are the traditions I like.”
It doesn’t take long before Few starts attacking the union and Sneed for the grief they’ve given him. But there are others Few believes are making his life unnecessarily difficult, as well. He tells me he thinks John Drake, a reporter for the Washington Times who covers the fire department, has treated him miserably. Few says the Times is often a mouthpiece for the union.
“The thing that frustrates me is that he has gotten bad information, and then he runs with it,” Few says of Drake. “You should at least try to get accurate information. Some union people tell him things that aren’t true, and he lets it go in the paper.”
Among other things, Drake has closely followed the department’s performance reports and the Georgia grand-jury investigation of Few. Drake, for his part, refers all questions to his boss, saying the Times’ public relations officer won’t let him speak to the press about the fire department or the chief.
Frustrations aside, Few is particularly proud of how he has reorganized the department. He says he has put in new measures of accountability. He has clarified the promotions process, so that officers know what they need to do to move up the ranks. And he has created a training program for upper management. “I’m big on training,” he says. “Everywhere I worked they said, ‘He’s big on training.’”
Other things he’s done to improve the department include hiring a staffer to apply for grants and purchasing new trucks and other needed equipment.
Yet Few also believes it’s important to concern himself with what some consider peripheral issues, such as the grooming policy. “I say our firefighting is some of the best,” Few says. “It’s the small things that make a fire department. When we get to the scene of a fire, we’re fine. It’s when we get back to the stations that we have problems.”
To get a better fix on those problems, Few has begun holding, from time to time, what he calls “Meet the Chief” sessions, in which anyone from the department can come to headquarters and air gripes or offer suggestions.
These are private meetings, but Few, with the permission of participants, lets me attend some. One morning a few weeks later, a lieutenant strides into the conference room near Few’s office, in uniform and poised ramrod-straight. In addition to firefighting, the lieutenant prepares research reports about training and personnel for the department on his own time.
Sitting across the table from Few, he hands over his résumé, which is extensive, and then begins to describe his problem. He wants Few to tell certain fire officials to permit him to do his research.
Apparently, this firefighter, who doesn’t want his name used, was booted out of his job at the training academy and was sent to work at a station house as a result of Few’s restructuring orders. The man explains that his former colleagues at the academy now treat him like a pariah. He can’t do his reports, he says, because he’s viewed as troublesomeone not on the chief’s good side.
“I want to give you an inventory of your assets,” the man, who grew up in the District, says firmly to an attentive Few. “If you’ll permit me to use an analogy: You’ve got a tool box in your possession. You’ve got hammers in that tool box, and you’ve got nails. But you have very few power tools. I’m one of the power tools, and I want you to know that. Now it’s up to you to choose to make use of it.”
The man goes on, describing how his reports have been vital to the department. Few remains silent, nodding every so often.
“I’m an outcast,” the man says finally. “What can I do to get back in the policymaking loop?”
Then Few jumps in. “I’m glad we had this meeting,” the chief tells the man, who had been a training officer at the academy. “Everywhere I worked, the only way I could change the department was through the training department.
“The best minds in the department need to be in training,” Few continues. “I’ve been looking for leadership in this department, and I haven’t seen a hell of a lot of it….I hate this Southern vs. Northern thing. I think we understand each other. We don’t have a language problem: I’d love to have you back down there.”
Suddenly, the lieutenant’s face goes flush as he realizes Few thinks that he wants to go back to work in the training department.
“Chief,” he interjects, “I’m not saying I want that job back. I’m actually handling three special research projects. I want you to call [a training academy officer] and tell him I’m not on a blacklist.”
“Oh, OK,” Few says, seeming a bit confused. “I’ll see what I can do.”
With that, Few launches into a familiar soliloquy. “You know,” he says to the lieutenant, “I’ve been telling the union, ‘You have to allow me as fire chief to run the department…’” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Pilar Vergara.