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For District resident Mary L. Best, April 4 started out routinely enough. By 7:15 a.m. she was perched against the front-window ledge of the Gentlemen of Distinction Barber Salon on Georgia Avenue NW, waiting for the bus that would take her to work. But at about 7:22 a.m. Best’s run-of-the-mill morning suddenly turned into a nightmare. A Metro bus stampeded across the oncoming traffic on Georgia Avenue and plowed through the barbershop’s plate-glass window, snapping a support beam and collapsing the building on top of the bus. Broken gas and electric lines hissed and crackled around the shower of bricks, glass, metal, and debris.
At the foot of the heap lay Best, her legs pinned between the bus’s front bumper and the toppled window ledge. Seven minutes after the accident, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) fielded the 911 call and dispatched D.C. Rescue Squad 2, a five-man heavy-duty squad that specializes in search and rescue, located just blocks from the scene. The crew arrived within a few minutes and firefighters scrambled to free the 62-year-old woman. But Squad 2 proceeded to turn Best’s nightmare into a horror show.
The squad had brought along air bags to jack up the bus, but the inflator was broken. The air bags couldn’t lift a feather, let alone a 15-ton Metro bus. Squad 2 was also equipped with a reciprocating saw to clear away the metal and debris trapping Best. But the saw was useless because it had no blades—cheap, low-tech items readily available at any Hechinger’s. The last piece of life-saving equipment in Squad 2’s armory was the winch on its truck, which might have helped prop up the bus—except that it had been out of service for the past year with a minor mechanical problem. The squad’s requests for materials and service had disappeared into a pile of job orders at the D.C. Fire Department (DCFD)’s fleet maintenance shop, a graveyard for equipment and repair orders.
As Squad 2’s anguished rescue team fumbled with its broken equipment, the four closest backup units were either out of service with mechanical problems or out on low-priority medical calls. As a result, the so-called “fifth-due” engine—DCFD jargon for the fifth engine that should arrive at the scene—was the first squad to supply extra manpower for Best’s rescue. At 7:42 a.m., dispatchers called a second rescue squad, which arrived five minutes later, according to DCFD records. Dispatchers also summoned Rescue Squad 3, a Southeast unit that carried the city’s only cave-in unit. As the so-called “golden hour” that rescuers have to save a victim ticked away, the cave-in squad overheated on the drive from Southeast, finally arriving about a half-hour after the original call.
Through all the chaos, Best was completely conscious and conversing politely with the firemen she believed would save her. She said things like, “Excuse me sir, if I could just get up,” recalls a rescue squad member.
But Best wouldn’t be getting up anytime soon. By the time the fire team had everything in place to shore up the building, jack up the bus, and wrest her from under the wreckage, field surgeons had given up on saving Best’s legs. They ordered rescuers to step aside, broke out the scalpels, and started cutting off her limbs. At 8:46 a.m.—one hour and 23 minutes after the first emergency call—Best was finally freed from underneath the bus—minus her legs.
DCFD Battalion Chief Alvin Carter, while acknowledging the rescue miscues, insists that Best would have lost her legs even if she had been freed immediately. Others aren’t convinced. “One leg might have been salvaged,” concludes a rescue worker.
Although Best’s tale reads like a worst-case scenario of fire department ineptitude, it isn’t. If you’re a D.C. resident and need DCFD to save your family and your home, you should expect no better. Thanks to heinous management policies that have slashed the DCFD budget by 30 percent since 1991, your nearest firetrucks may well be gathering dust in a dark station or idling next to a passed-out wino until an ambulance shows up to take him to detox. When an engine finally does arrive, chances are its water tank will be leaking, its hoses torn, its tools broken, and reinforcements slow in coming. The firefighters who leap from the trucks will be poorly trained and often unfamiliar with their own equipment. And God help you if you need help from one of the city’s 16 infamous, unreliable ladder trucks, which every media outlet from the New York Times on down has seized upon as a symbol of the District’s failings.
DCFD’s breakdown can be measured concretely in human costs. Twenty-one people have already died this year from fires, almost three times as many as in 1995. Arson continues to run wild, and the city has done little to stop it. Last year, the District saw 367 arsons, and this year, there’ve been more than 225 cases—only 10 of which were prosecuted. Property loss has climbed over $46.5 million, compared to an average of $15 million in recent years. The city’s insurance rating has plummeted. Yet D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Chief Otis Latin continues to reassure citizens. “From my perspective,” Latin said in a July interview, “the D.C. residents are very safe.”
“The fire chief is taking you and every other citizen for a fool,” says Lt. Larry Schultz of Engine 10, which made 8,169 rounds in 1995, making it the nation’s busiest engine company.
Latin took command of DCFD in 1993 amid high expectations that he would retool a department suffering from the usual symptoms of District mismanagement: low morale, well-documented blunders, and poorly maintained facilities and equipment. Fresh off an acclaimed stint as Houston’s fire chief, Latin promised to undo the misdeeds of outgoing Chief Rayfield Alfred, who enraged city officials and residents by cutting staffing from five to four on all engines.
Shortly after taking command, Latin embraced a gimmick that he promised would save the department money without compromising its performance. The idea was to shutter firehouses for short periods on a rotating basis throughout the city. The plan, Latin promised, would not significantly lengthen DCFD response times because backup fire companies would be called upon to pick up the slack for closed engines in their areas.
As a cost-cutting measure, the plan has worked to perfection: DCFD saves $1 million a year for every firehouse on the rotation list. And Latin intends to keep the rotations in place at least until the end of October.
But Latin’s game of “firehouse roulette” has made him more despised than his predecessor. Although the plan may have appeared feasible on paper, it has proved a flaming disaster in the hands of harried, poorly trained engine chiefs responsible for covering new and unfamiliar terrain. The practice creates gaps in coverage that expand throughout the day like concentric waves rippling through a pond. As calls go out, engines swerve farther and farther off the city’s carefully crafted response grid. Every resulting DCFD miscue—whether tragic or trivial—gets stapled to Latin like a billboard.
“Eventually, every single day somebody is in jeopardy,” Schultz says.
Although Latin’s minions blame the rotations for the dropoff in DCFD responsiveness, Latin stands by the policy. “There has not been any of these fire deaths where the companies were out of service and could not get there in time,” he says. “Sure, we’ve had companies out of service, but on each of the fire deaths, we’ve been able to respond and get to the scene within our five-minute goal.”
At around 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 26, 1995, someone set fire to the three-story brick apartment building at 1301 1st St. NW. The fire was quickly detected, and at 7:40 p.m. DCFD dispatchers sent units to the two-alarm fire. Just down the street from the building, Engine 6, the closest to the scene, sat locked up in its dark firehouse. The second-closest engine was out on a medical call and couldn’t respond to the fire. Nearby Truck 4 was the first vehicle to arrive on the scene, but the truck wasn’t carrying water.
According to DCFD records, more than six minutes elapsed from the time of the call until the first fire vehicles arrived on the scene—an eternity in the fire-rescue business. The firefighters arrived to find the second and third floors ablaze and heavy smoke billowing from the north side of the building. A wall of fire raged beneath the stairs, but rescuers were still able to make their way to the second-floor landing, where they found 46-year-old Thomas Shelton. He was already dead from smoke inhalation.
“That was definitely a screw-up on the fire department’s part—on management’s part,” says a firefighter who staffs Engine 6. “And it will continue as long as citizens continue to sit back and accept it.” Schultz estimates that closing Engine 6 that day added at least two minutes to the department’s response time.
Latin’s numerous critics insist that tragedies like Shelton’s death could have been avoided if Latin knew more about the history of firehouse roulette. Closing firehouses on a rotating basis dates back to the 1970s, when DCFD was in the throes of another budget crunch. However, DCFD promptly abandoned the practice after several small children died in fires near closed firehouses.
Although public outrage over the practice is not as strong now as it was then, community groups are every bit as vocal as frustrated firefighters in opposing Latin. “A lot of times last-minute decisions are being made, and the community doesn’t know if a company is in service or out of service,” says Anne Renshaw, chairperson of the Chevy Chase Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC).
D.C. residents tend to find out about firehouse rotations the hard way. On April 9, 1996, William Douglass, an 81-year-old retired D.C. elementary-school principal, was in his kitchen when a fire broke out in his home on the 1200 block of Underwood Street NW. Unfortunately for Douglass, Latin’s out-of-service rotation schedule that day put Engine 22, located just down the block from Douglass at Georgia and Missouri Avenues, in mothballs. Meanwhile, Engine 14, the second-due engine, was out of service with a mechanical problem.
Although the third-due engine on the alarm arrived at Douglass’ home within four minutes, the rescue squad—which is charged with searching through burning buildings for victims—wasn’t so prompt. The nearest crew had been dispatched 10 minutes earlier to fix a stalled elevator in Northwest and couldn’t be recalled. (Most cities don’t send rescue squads to unstick jammed elevators unless the situation is critical, but D.C. does.) The second-due rescue squad reached Douglass’ home 12 minutes after the original call. By the time it got to Douglass, he was dead.
“His chances would have been a hell of a lot greater if the [first-due] company was in service,” says Ray Sneed, president of the Local 36 of the International Association of Firefighters, which represents all D.C. firefighters.
While it’s hard to quantify the cost of firehouse roulette in human terms, it has taken a measurable toll on DCFD response times. Latin acknowledges that response times have increased 30 seconds on all calls—from about 4 minutes 40 seconds in 1993 to 5:11 in 1995. During the same period, response times for structural fires were up 45 seconds—from 4:01 to 4:46, according to the best available data. And DCFD’s response may be even slower than the data reveal, according to department insiders. Even Latin admits that the data are inaccurate because of faulty recording methods and broken tracking equipment.
Sneed says, “Not only response time is critical, but every second counts. It’s an unfair statement to say [response time and loss] are not interrelated.”
“Thirty seconds can be everything in the life of a fire,” argues D.C. Council Judiciary Committee Chairman Bill Lightfoot, who oversees the fire department. “I attribute the increase in fire-related injuries and fatalities, in part, to rotations and closings and the increased response times that resulted.”
“Rampart…[static]…This is Squad 51, Johnny here. We have a Caucasian, male victim approximate age 30, suffering probable smoke inhalation….Respond.”
After listening to the crackle of an urgent radio call, the 10 or so firefighters on-duty at Florida Avenue’s Engine 10 firehouse look down at their plates and continue devouring their dinner—a veritable firefighter’s feast, including Swiss steak, German macaroni, rolls, and fresh green beans. The crew is watching a rerun of their favorite show: Emergency! It’s an appropriate episode for D.C. firefighters: John Gage (Randolph Mantooth) and his sidekick, Roy DeSoto (Kevin Tighe), dress up in old-fashioned rescue garb and drive an antique fire engine in a local parade. A fire breaks out nearby, and they enter the fray with their antiquated gear to save the day.
The scene at the two-bay station at 1342 Florida Ave. NE is not even half as pleasant as the 1970s-vintage firehouse in Emergency! Unlike the clean and airy firehouse where Johnny and Roy dine, Engine 10 and Truck 13’s seedy station harbors rats, roaches, and beds that might scare off the homeless. Like a third of the city’s 65 firehouses, the station’s roof leaks. The two-story brick firehouse, which dates from the 1920s, is poorly ventilated and lit—a musty smell lingers from shift to shift. The carpets are tattered, the floors worn, the furniture uncomfortable.
“Engine 10. Respond for person down on 8th and H.” This time a bona fide radio call forces the crew to interrupt its meal.
The call turns out to be one of the station’s regulars: a diabetic alcoholic who fails to take his insulin every now and then and ends up staggering around the sidewalk, worrying the neighbors. Engine 10 has already visited the guy several times in the past month and follows the same drill. It does a quick checkup, asks the man if he’s taken his insulin, and heads back to the station. Another repeat customer is a bedridden woman who calls the crew to change her sheets when she soils them. In D.C., emergency is a relative phenomenon. Dutifully, the firefighters treat the low-priority calls the same as the life-threatening ones.
“We are their health care,” says Mike Fulcher, the evening’s chef and a truck technician, explaining that as neighborhood medical clinics continue to close, the fire company’s calls mount. “Everyone knows if they call 911 they’ll get a firetruck right away,” he says.
The city’s Medicaid and uninsured populations, which together number in the hundreds of thousands, have come to rely on calling emergency services to access health care. They often don’t get appropriate primary and preventive care, but they know emergency doctors will treat them even in nonlife-threatening situations.
Even worse, the fire department has no right of refusal. “If someone calls with a hangnail and wants to go the hospital, we take them,” Schultz says. And when an engine arrives on a low-priority call, it must remain at the scene until an ambulance arrives, which often takes more than an hour. “Even if there were a fire across the street, the company can’t leave,” Schultz says.
“Every day in this house, we miss runs [to fires],” Schultz says. “We’re caught in the middle—it’s the most unfair thing you’ve seen in your life.”
The District is like a dike with scores of gushing leaks, and city officials take a haphazard approach to plugging them. That’s where the fire department comes in. Like an all-purpose service station, the fire department is the place citizens call when other city services fail them. When people want an abandoned car towed, they call the fire department. When there is a domestic dispute, they call the fire department. When they need a cab to the doctor, they call the fire department. In addition to increasing response time to fires, making all these additional runs puts wear and tear on fire vehicles and hurts morale.
“It beats you down after a while,” says Lt. John Sollers of Truck 13.
The policy of sending firetrucks on emergency calls began in the 1980s, after the city’s ambulance bureau succumbed to District mismanagement. Ambulance drivers routinely got lost on runs, exposing the District government to lawsuits and derision. Since the city’s firetrucks outnumbered its ambulances two to one and were strategically located at D.C.’s firehouses, the fire department was called upon to bail out the ambulance bureau. The policy became mandatory in 1991 when a friend of then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly died of an asthma attack while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.
The policy has gradually turned the fire department into a glorified ambulance service. Nowadays, the department makes about 142,000 medical runs a year—an 80-percent increase from 1991. Meanwhile, on-duty staffing has been cut by 25 percent—down to about 228 firefighters. D.C. residents call 911 more often than citizens in any other city nationwide, and about 40 percent of the calls are for low-priority medical services that end in a ride to the hospital.
“If we had a trusted and effective clinic system, many of our citizens would go to clinics as opposed to calling an ambulance,” Lightfoot says.
Latin says he wants to get the engines off medical calls that are not life-threatening by the end of this year—as soon as the department works the “bugs” out of the medical-priority dispatch system. The system assigns an urgency rating to each call, ranging from 1 for low-priority nuisances to 4 for full-blown emergencies. Under Latin’s plan, engines would no longer leave the firehouse for 1- and 2-level calls. But Latin’s pledge rings hollow to firefighters, who note that he has been promising the change for three years.
So far, the priority dispatch system has only stretched response times. In fact, DCFD technician Albert David Johnson says the new system can take four to five minutes just to process the call. “That is an awful long time,” he says.
White ribbons of smoke began rising from the Treasury Department building around rush hour on June 26. Within seconds, the fire alarm kicked in, and federal employees started pouring out of the ivory-columned building. As the first firetrucks pulled up at the scene, the strands of smoke wove into thick pillows. A workman renovating the roof had ignited the blaze with a propane torch.
It took 75 firefighters a staggering four hours to kill the fire, and a dozen of them were injured in the process. Many complained that DCFD erred in classifying the blaze as a mere two-alarm fire—a mistake that cost taxpayers up to $30 million, since the Treasury Department hadn’t insured the building for fire.
“It should have been a three-alarm fire from the start,” one rescuer says—not to mention that there was a half-hour delay before the second alarm was called. For each alarm, four engine companies, two truck companies, a rescue squad, and a battalion chief are called in. After firefighters realized the extent of the blaze, dispatchers called enough reinforcements to muster a three-alarm force. But playing catch-up against a roaring fire is a losing game.
The manpower shortage at the scene meant that frantic fire crews made costly mistakes in fighting the fire. For example, they failed to place salvage covers over equipment to reduce water and smoke damage to lower floors of the building. As a result, eight inches of water accumulated in the historic cash room, which houses priceless national artifacts.
The Treasury fire put the department’s incompetence on display for a national audience, according to William G. Smith, a Palisades resident who served as a consultant on emergency preparedness for the federal core under the Eisenhower administration. “How much faster would the Treasury Department fire have been extinguished if our firemen had sufficient manpower and water pressure at first?” Smith asked in an August letter to Lightfoot. “What other operations failures will occur before we obtain adequate leadership?” he asks, noting that the top talent has fled the department since Latin took over in November 1993.
On May 28, the 150-plus members of the D.C. firefighters’ union unanimously approved a vote of no confidence in Latin’s leadership. It marked the first time in 10 years that the union had dissed the fire chief; even Alfred failed to earn the dishonor.
The no-confidence vote may actually understate the union’s scorn for Latin. The most effective way for the chief to alienate the union is to volunteer for budget cuts, a count on which the union finds Latin guilty. While MPD Chief Larry Soulsby fought for more money for his officers, 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. In a town where agency directors use every trick in the book to claim a bigger chunk of cash, the fire union wants a chief who shows up to budget hearings with a big stick.
“This is critical to the job,” the union’s Sneed says.
Latin says that securing full funding for a department entrusted with saving people from burning buildings can wait.
“The problem is that people think I have not worked hard enough to increase the budget to where it should have been. But these things take time,” he says.
Once Latin took over, he wasted no time in whittling the yearly budget down to $73 million for 1994 and 1995, a drop of more than 25 percent from funding levels under Alfred. Then-Mayor Kelly and Latin bragged about the two-year savings of $50 million from the cuts.
“I would make an argument that repairing the damage of the savings of those two years will cost more than $100 million,” says Smith, who testified before the judiciary committee of the D.C. Council this May.
And even under Mayor Marion Barry—Latin is the only holdover at his level from the Kelly administration—Latin has continued advocating the emasculation of his own department. In March 1995, for instance, Latin proposed permanently closing eight firehouses. The council rejected his plan, instead opting to close two and rotate five. Latin closed a rescue squad and truck two months later, allowing the number of stations rotating out of service to climb to eight.
In May 1996, Latin told the council he could do the job in 1997 on roughly $95 million—the precise amount that Barry requested in his much-ballyhooed “transformation” budget. To operate on the requested funding level, DCFD would have had to permanently shutter another three fire companies and the rescue squad that was called in to save Best—a “solution” that would have left two rescue squads to cover the entire 69-square-mile city and slowed response times by another 15 seconds. The recommendations stemmed from a comprehensive study commissioned by Latin on the city’s fire-suppression operations and deployment needs.
Fortunately for District residents, the control board and the council stepped boldly into the leadership vacuum left by Latin. Acting on a proposal by Lightfoot, the two bodies authorized a $106-million budget for DCFD in 1997, a level commensurate with the high-water 1991 numbers—and enough to stop the rotations.
In a July interview, however, Latin took credit for the budget hike.
At any rate, relief is not coming fast enough. D.C. will not be equipped to respond to fires and other emergencies for another five years, according to an inventory by Latin. To reach full strength, DCFD would have to purchase five engines, two ladder trucks, and 18 ambulances every year until 2000. But that’s not all: It would also have to take delivery on FY 1996’s order for three engines, two ladders, and 15 ambulances, and outfit a new rescue squad in 1998.
“Even when we purchase the ladder trucks, we won’t have the number we need to operate,” Lightfoot says.
Community groups are also maddened by Latin’s lack of responsiveness to requests for briefings on fire department issues and even to offers to help the department. For example, Latin has not responded to an offer by Renshaw’s Chevy Chase ANC to donate $553 for a 24-foot extension ladder for the engine housed at Connecticut Avenue and Fessenden Street NW. The department has bought no replacement ladders of this variety for more than a year-and-a-half.
Five months after her accident, Mary Best lies in a bed at the National Rehab Hospital. Her wounds have still not healed, in part because of medication she must take to prevent blot clots. Best is now suing the student who was driving the Metro bus, the driver’s supervisor, and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority for $20 million for their “malicious, willful, wanton, and reckless disregard for her safety.” Her attorneys have put the city on notice that Best may sue DCFD as well.
“We can’t see the reason why she was lying there that long in agonizing pain,” says Best’s attorney, Michael Morgenstern. “One would think that the 45 minutes or hour she was lying underneath the bus is something that didn’t need to happen for whatever reason.”
As if struggling through her recovery and adjusting to her life as a double amputee weren’t hard enough, Best must live through it all wondering whether a responsive, properly equipped rescue team could have saved at least one of her legs.
Best’s predicament is colored in gray, like most rescue scenarios. Although rescue personnel believe that a speedy rescue might have enabled Best to keep one of her legs, Til Jolly, the George Washington University emergency physician who performed the amputations, disagrees: “I don’t think that’s possible,” he says, noting that the damage to her legs was done on impact.
Throughout his three-year tenure at DCFD, Latin has seized upon the uncertainty inherent in emergency situations to dodge blame for his department’s declining performance. For example, when pressed on the deaths of District residents who have choked to death in burning buildings while nearby firehouses have sat idle, Latin responds, “It’s hard to correlate fire deaths to equipment and all that stuff.”
It may be hard, but it’s not impossible. With funding down and fire deaths soaring, people are beginning to see a disturbing correlation.
“I can’t understand why the citizens in the District aren’t up in arms,” Sneed says.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.