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At the end of the five-hour meeting, all parties could agree on one thing: A complete failure of the system contributed to the tragic death of Medric Mills, the elderly man who collapsed across the street from a fire station in January on Rhode Island Avenue NE and died of a heart attack after none of the nearby rescue workers came to help him.

What wasn’t so clear, however, was whether the failure of the firefighters was an isolated incident or if such problems are wider spread within D.C. Fire and EMS.

Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, led the hearing, and heard testimony from families who say their loved ones died after emergency personnel failed to come to their aid. (Muriel Bowser was the only other councilmember who made an appearance at the hearing.)

“These blunders by the fire department have been going on for years, they’ve proven that they’ve been unable to address their shortcomings internally,” Mills’ son, Medric Mills III, said during his testimony.

Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul Quander Jr. oversaw an investigation into Mills’ death, which last week determined that the five firefighters in the station that did nothing while Mills suffered a heart attack outside should be disciplined. The firefighters broke protocol by not helping Mills when someone came to the fire station door to tell them of his collapse. There is no rules on the books, Quander said at the hearing, that would have prevented them from helping Mills without being dispatched. The investigation also revealed that dispatchers initially sent emergency personnel to the wrong address, further delaying the time it took to get responders to the scene of the incident.

Quander testified that this incident is not reflective of the entire department.

“There appeared to be apathy and total disregard for human life,” Quander said. “This has nothing to do with policy and procedure, this has to do with human character.”

When Wells questioned why, if this was an isolated incident, all five of the fire fighters opted to do nothing to help Mills, D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe said it was a failure of leadership, and if the lieutenant is out of order, the rank and file would follow suit. The lieutenant in charge has  been put on desk duty and will have an internal hearing next week.

“I think leadership in the fire station begins with the company’s officer,” Ellerbe said. Ellerbe indicated at the hearing that he does not think there needs to be a major overhaul of the rules that govern the fire department. Instead, he said, the fire fighters need to follow the existing rules and those that don’t should be disciplined. “The outcome of the disciplinary process sometimes tends to encourage folks to pay attention to rules and regulations,” he said. “I believe in the disciplinary process.”

Photo courtesy of The Cochran Firm