I’m going to start my own volunteer police department. We’re going to get huge guns and shiny handcuffs and cars painted like Starsky and Hutch. Instead of “Freeze!” we’re going to scream “Chill!” Our uniforms will be by Hugo Boss—fascist elegance with high black boots. We will swagger. We will work with the efficiency of zealots. Response times will be in the seconds. Domestic disputes will be dispatched with expediency and flair. Every officer will be an expert in kung fu.
Alas, it’s not really my idea. Firefighter Vaughn Bennett has beaten me to the punch with the whole volunteer concept—except that he’s not joking around about old TV fantasies.
Bennett’s been on the inside of the D.C. Fire Department. He was one of the pros for six years, Backdraft style, until 1997. When he and the department parted ways, it was an ugly scene. There were anonymous memos alleging conflicts of interest among high-level department officials. Bennett locked horns with the firefighter’s union, Local 36. He eventually split (“Flamethrower,” 2/28/97). In the end, he agrees with fire department officials on only one thing: He is a troublemaker.
Even though Bennett is no longer starting fires in the department, however, he’s not through wanting to put them out. On April 19, he legally incorporated the D.C. Volunteer Fire Department. Although pro bono firefighting evokes Mayberry-style good citizenship elsewhere, locally, it’s a novelty. The closest we get is the volunteer Friendship Fire Association, whose members chase fire trucks with doughnuts and coffee. Those volunteers tend to stop well short of the leaping flames.
So far, it’s likely to stay that way: Bennett can produce only himself as a volunteer so far—though he claims he has “around 25” flame-retarding good Samaritans. “We are still in the process of development and implementation,” he says, suggesting that volunteers could eventually be operating in tandem with professionals. “It is happening. It is not going to go away.”
And it’s not just about getting a chance to take an ax to a burning building. Talk to Bennett long enough and it becomes apparent that he also wants a chance to take an ax to the D.C. Fire Department. “Training, equipment, know-how, accountability. There are a myriad of problems that have not been addressed, therefore [endangering] the lives of many citizens and the D.C. firefighters,” he says, neglecting to spell out just how a group of volunteers would be better trained, better equipped, or more accountable.
“If you have a fire department that is one of the most inadequate in terms of know-how, training, and equipment, and this is the nation’s capital—basically the capital of the world—it only makes sense to have a volunteer fire department.”
Room 1030 of One Judiciary Square could probably fit 200 people. Bennett reserved it for three hours on June 17 to host his “Emergency Meeting on Fire Safety in D.C.,” an event he was hoping would lure would-be volunteer firefighters into the fold. But at 6:20 p.m.—20 minutes past the scheduled start time—only a few stragglers have wandered in.
And it’s not quite the crowd you’d want if your house were on fire: There are only four people here, and two of them are reporters. I can’t vouch for the other reporter, but a Weber with a bottle of starter fluid is about as close as I’d ever get to a blazing fire.
Slim and athletic in a double-breasted peaked lapel suit, Bennett wears cool glasses that look like Yasser Arafat’s. His speech is well-rehearsed. You get the sense that he’s afraid you are going to cut him off because his notions are so outrageous—but that he knows that if people would just listen for a second, they’d sign right up.
“I’m Vaughn’s biggest fan,” says Frank Wenin. Wenin looks eerily like the guy who played the crazy pilot on The A-Team and holds a basketball that’s been painted to look like a globe. He doesn’t have a truck or a helmet or a Dalmation, but he does have a huge wooden chess board that he suggests helps him make a living—”my American Express card,” he calls it—and a toothy grin. “Do you play chess?” he asks.
Bennett—who has in fact spent chunks of the past two years volunteering as a chess coach around town—is rather more serious than his biggest fan. He carries with him stacks of reports and Freedom of Information Act queries on the fire department. “The gravity of this situation is that the lives of the citizens, visitors, and firefighters of this city are in jeopardy,” he declares.
The 33-year-old paints a scary picture: The truck companies are thinly staffed with ill-trained employees. Resources are being squandered. The poor neighborhoods are most likely to ignite. Homes are burning, and firefighters are at risk. The answer, Bennett claims, is to get Wenin—and anyone else who’s got
the guts—out of the frying pan and into
Bennett’s former professional colleagues are ready with the hoses. Batallion Fire Chief Stephen Reid says that he is unaware of any efforts to support his professional force with a squad of volunteers, adding that the professionals can do the job and are continually getting better. Reid and many colleagues dismiss Bennett as “pretty much a disgruntled employee.”
Others are less collegial. “I don’t think it had anything to do with whistle-blowing,” says one firefighter, dismissing Bennett’s story of how he left the department. “He likes to blow his own horn, basically is what it was.”
Bennett, of course, claims the rock-throwing is all about turf, and at least one activist agrees. Paul Clark of the nonprofit Coalition for Local Sovereignty says he supports the establishment of volunteer organizations and argues that it’s just like established bureaucracies to take potshots at newcomers. “They worry more about preserving jobs,” says Clark. “Obviously, he’s got a lot of opposition from them.”
On the other hand, it doesn’t help Bennett’s case that pros like Reid have a pretty good historical argument detailing how D.C. has been safe from imminent immolation thanks to the professional fire department it’s had since 1871. Minimum requirements for new professional firefighters include an entrance exam, a physical agility test, 10 weeks of training including four weeks of emergency medical service training, and a high school diploma. Chess proficiency is somehow not on the list.
Bennett says there’s more to a volunteer fire department than just a chance to pitch in. He claims his force will also train firefighters for the paid job, generating a trained hometown work force. His idea is that they will eventually work in tandem with the pros, many of whom started out with volunteer departments outside of town. Because D.C. doesn’t have its own volunteer program, Bennett says the city suffers a talent drain. The system, he says, has perpetuated a group of professionals who live in the ‘burbs but come into the District and get paid to fight fires.
Bennett calls these commuters—two of whom gave their lives fighting a May fire—”urban adventurers.”
“Urban adventurers are people that come to the city to get a little adventure, so they can go back home to the rural counties and say, ‘Hey, we were in there, and we fought some fires,’ and there are quite a few urban adventurers in the District of Columbia Fire Department,” Bennett says. “You have individuals that volunteer, come here, and get jobs—they stay here, but keep their residences there and go home and then come back.”
Like a good D.C. patriot, Bennett says that we should fight our own fires. “How will a volunteer fire department help this city?” he asks. “The same way it does in the surrounding localities, by creating that connection to the community by empowering people with the skills they need to save lives. That is what a fire department is all about.” CP