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This letter is submitted in response to “Burn, Baby, Burn” by Julie Wakefield (8/30). In spite of the fact that Wakefield was supplied with qualified and correct information, she consciously wrote an article filled with misinformation, half-truths, and in some instances outright untruths. This reporter did the men and women of the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Department a profound injustice. This inaccurate and biased reporting on the members and management of this department cannot and will not go unchallenged.
The statement on the cover page, “The city’s fire department does a lot of things for D.C. residents. Putting out fires, however, is not its specialty,” sets the tone. Wakefield’s statement is an insult to the men and women of this fine and proud organization who put their lives on the line day in and day out for the citizens of and visitors to this great city.
The primary mission of the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department is the protection of life and property. However, it is not our mission to provide a taxi service, haul trees, and change bedsheets, as stated in this article. On occasion citizens are assisted with non-emergency activities while the fire apparatus remains in service and available for emergency response.
Wakefield states, “The firefighters who leap from the trucks will be poorly trained and often unfamiliar with their equipment.” If she was trying to write a fair article, she would have found that this department not only trains its own personnel, but has also trained personnel from neighboring jurisdictions. This department applied for and received accreditation from the International Fire Service Accreditation Congress of Oklahoma State University. For the first time in its history, the D.C. Fire & EMS Department has an accredited fire-training academy.
This article is filled with unsupported allegations. For example: “DCFD’s breakdown can be measured concretely in human costs.” It is true that in FY 96 there have been 21 fire fatalities, but if fire fatalities are reviewed over the last five fiscal years, the average is 15 fire fatalities per fiscal year. The number of fire fatalities in FY 95 (8) was exceptionally low as compared to previous years, but it should be noted that the process of rotating fire companies out of service was in place during FY 95, when the lowest number of fire fatalities in the history of this department was documented.
With respect to the Metrobus accident in the 5900 block of Georgia Avenue NW, the focus should have been on the fact that well-organized teams of firefighters, emergency medical providers, and doctors at the scene of this incident saved Ms. Best’s life. But Wakefield chose to focus on a broken air-bag valve. The air bags were not going to be used on this incident because the already endangered structural integrity of the building could have been compromised to the point of collapse, thereby preventing the medical team from stabilizing the patient and saving her life. Additionally, none of the items Wakefield concentrated on had an impact on the outcome of the incident. Her suggestion that the units dispatched to calls prior to the accident should not have been dispatched to those medical emergencies demonstrates her inability to understand the nature and priority of medical emergency calls.
The last fire she mentioned in this article was the Treasury Department building fire. If Wakefield had done her homework, she would have known how well this incident was handled. The Treasurer and his staff have personally thanked the members of the D.C. Fire and EMS Department for saving an irreplaceable national landmark.
Finally, I am very disappointed with Wakefield’s misrepresentations about me. First, she states, “Latin has testified to the D.C. Council time and again that DCFD can get by on less. So the department has gotten less and less, which explains in part its crumbling equipment and worsening response times.” My testimony before the Committee on the Judiciary has been consistent—each time I have requested that the department be allowed to make changes to meet the budget mark or fully fund the department. I interviewed with Wakefield for more than two hours. What a waste of my valuable time. I was hired in November 1993 and the budget was already set for FY 94 at $73 million. So how could a responsible reporter write with a clear conscience, “Once Latin took over, he wasted no time in whittling the yearly budget down to $73 million for 1994 and 1995…” Each year, including FY 94, we have been able to increase the department’s budget above the FY 93 funding level of $86.7 million.
We can understand objective criticism, but this article is both a misrepresentation of the facts and a biased report of the facts. Wakefield’s article appears to be a conscious attempt to discredit me and the District of Columbia Fire & Emergency Medical Services Department, and is a prime example of journalism at its worst.
D.C. Fire & EMS Department