Conduct of D.C. Fire and EMS Department Probed

James Wright - WI Staff Writer | 3/17/2010, 3:48 p.m.

The recent death of a two-year-old who allegedly died due to mistakes made by the District€s fire and emergency medical services department prompted the D.C. City Council to hold a hearing to determine how the top brass plans to address and remedy the problems.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large) held a hearing on the management of the District of Columbia€s Fire and Emergency Services Department, Fri., March 12 at the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest.

The death of toddler Stephanie Stephens on Feb. 10 and a December 2009 incident involving an elderly woman who was having trouble breathing are the latest incidents in which workers from the District of Columbia€s Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department have been criticized for making poor decisions regarding the public€s safety.

€I firmly believe that these two incidents are systemic of a greater problem in the FEMS, that of leadership at the top,€ said Ray Sneed, the president of the D.C. Firefighters Association and Local 36 of the International Association of Firefighters, AFL-CIO MWC.

Sneed, a 33-year veteran of the department commended his colleagues performance overall during the hearing, convened by Mendelson, who chairs the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary.

He also quoted statistics from the National Run Survey conducted by Fire House Magazine, that state the District€s department ranks 11th in the nation, 159,919 for total calls; 32,396 for fire calls and 126,523 for EMS responses. Sneed said that his colleagues work long hours and that the work is often dangerous.

The District€s fire and emergency medical services department, which is led by Dennis L. Rubin, not only handles calls from city residents but from the White House, the U.S. Capitol, embassies and federal installations. Plus, it must be on hand for countless marches and special events that are unique to Washington.
Sneed made it clear to Mendelson, 57, that the workers who made the bad decisions should be disciplined; he called their conduct €unacceptable.€

Kenneth Lyons, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 3721, said that the department€s top brass does not understand how to respond to residents€ concerns.

€It is the administration that does not understand the complex community that they are charged with providing care to,€ Lyons, 51, said.

€A community for the most part that trusts the government and expects a lot from its government.€

Lyons said that Rubin and his management team have given lip service to the public as opposed to change.

€Fenty promised substantial change but it looks worse than 30 years ago,€ he said.

Rubin, of course, disagreed with his critics and said that the department is on track for excellence.

He apologized to the family of Stephens and accepted full responsibility for the poor judgment of his employees.

€Good leadership begins and ends at the top and I can only hope that my testimony today will re-assure the community that the emergency medical services in the city is not broken and does not suffer from a lack of sound judgment and responsible actions by the vast majority of our employees,€ he said.

Rubin, who was appointed by Mayor Adrian Fenty in April 2007, responded to Mendelson€s concerns about the department. He said that reforms are underway, employees are constantly being trained and that all personnel will be held accountable for their actions.

When Mendelson pressed Rubin on whether supervisory personnel will be disciplined regarding the Stephens€ incident, the Chief repeatedly said that the matter €was under investigation.€

Rubin pointed out that his department makes approximately 120,000 patient contacts and more than 80,000 patient transports each year.

€Even if we made mistakes in only 1/100 of one percent of all the patients we see, that still accounts for at least 10 patients per year with potentially undesirable outcomes,€ Rubin said.

€The only thing we can do in the future is to again re-evaluate what needs to be done, take immediate corrective action, monitor outcomes and, if indicated, act on making longer term substantive changes to ultimately prevent similar mistakes.€ WI