Life Safety Initiative No.12 and the DCFD

Maybe it is because this doesn’t involve firefighting that others are so quiet about it.

“12. National protocols for response to violent incidents should be developed and championed.”
“16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives”, Everyone Goes Home

By now the country’s fire service is well aware of the latest Washington, D.C. public safety, public imagery debacle that has come from the office of the mayor. In an effort to curb summer violence, the city has directed that firefighters park their apparatus at key locations in some of the reputed violent neighborhoods. The full scope of the matter is muddy when you read all the available local coverage of this “community policing effort.” The commonality among all the reports is that the fire department (note, no inclusion of EMS units in this effort, despite an earlier “rebranding” of the department) is to maintain a “presence” in order to prevent crime towards the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program employees. Opponents of the plan say that there are neither specifics to “presence” nor direction to take when observing criminal acts. If the vague leadership isn’t enough, even the Metropolitan Police Department’s union president has called the effort “dangerous.” That is where the rub is.

Nothing to Hear but Crickets
In a time when the national fire service is constantly reminded of the various initiatives and efforts meant to keep its firefighters safe, not one of the national organizations has even slightly admonished Mayor Gray, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul Quander and DCFEMS Chief Kenneth Ellerbe for ignoring Life Safety Initiative No.12 “National protocols for response to violent incidents should be developed and championed.” According to fire department union president Ed Smith, “Not only are my members not trained as police officers they are not properly equipped to handle police matters, yet could be called upon to become involved in various situations that places them in harm’s way!” This support the facts that simply having firefighters sit in violent neighborhoods with the only protection being the apparatus itself is contrary to trying to prevent injury and death during violent incidents. It’s true that Initiative 12 isn’t supposed to address every single violent medic local, and is geared towards standoffs, barricades, and active shooter incidents, but a firefighter killed by a criminal with a firearm is still a dead firefighter. It makes no difference if it’s Columbine or Columbia Heights since being fired on or stabbed still has the potential for deadly outcomes.

What is truly a shame is the silence from our safety leaders. Had the firefighters burned in the vacant house fire in April of this year been killed, we would have been reminded again of the discipline needed to keep firefighters safe at vacant buildings. The department and its culture would have been questioned for the manner it operated. So what is different about a firefighter dying in a vacant house fire and a gang-banger deciding to “cap” a firefighter or two sitting in their engine watching the world go by?

There is nothing at all different in the principle of the matter. It simply comes down to managing risk.

It’s obvious that the fire department is expected to call in suspicious behavior, but in a city where ambulance crews have been assaulted in the past and police officers face criminals better armed than themselves, what does it say about managing risk when you send firefighters to simply sit in violent areas? The District of Columbia is not the Wild West. In true reporting, the homicide rate of its neighbor, Prince George’s County, Maryland is currently pacing higher than the district. 13 homicides in 13 days in the beginning of the year, as well as additional criminal activity prompted Prince George’s County Police to deploy more police officers, and not firefighters, in the neighborhoods where the homicides occurred. The police department also stepped up with neighborhood walks and increased communication in communities.

Wrong Message, Wrong Delivery and Wrong Attitude
The week before it was announced that firefighters would be deployed, the District had experienced a triple shooting and several armed attacks. The community response was to call for an increased police presence. Unfortunately, Deputy Mayor Quander’s plan only addresses one small part of the community and not the citizens of the District in entirety. Last year SYEP employees were robbed of their pay/debit cards because according to some District officials they wore bright colored clothing that easily identified them, especially on pay day. To combat that, this year’s plan is to eliminate the shirts and place firefighters at key intersections or ATMs to prevent robberies. Even though the plan was reportedly already in practice weeks before the media reported it, one SYEP employee had already been mugged. Strangely enough, opponents and proponents have not stated if a fire company was on the scene.

Supporters of the plan have used some of the oldest talking points in public service to justify having an engine, truck or rescue squad company on the streets. The Deputy Mayor’s own statement almost begs questioning his view of reality,

“”It’s to prevent things from bubbling up. The idea is that if you have a fire engine with adults there no one is going to commit a crime,”

Increased police patrol, such as MPD’s “All Hands on Deck” operations, may have a better impact than simply hoping that the criminal element will think twice about committing a crime just because a red white fire engine with men and women in blue is parked at the corner liquor store, 7-11 or fast food restaurant. It’s almost complete lunacy to think that having adults in blue will prevent crime. Just ask the number of MPD officers who have been assaulted or shot at. Or ask the MPD officers themselves convicted of crimes.

Let’s also not forget the public image of the fire service this plan affects. Across the country, legitimate and citizen led news reports have questioned firefighters “joy riding”, shopping for meals, and simply driving the area. Misunderstood, the daily non-emergency activities are seen as wasteful spending of taxpayer money. Politicians and citizens demand accountability, wanting firefighters to be busy from start to finish of the tour with no downtime for anything remotely extracurricular. While this hasn’t specifically happened in the District, the message the crime prevention plan sends says that the DCFEMS has the time to spare to simply sit on the street.

Had Deputy Mayor Quander or Chief Ellerbe been more thoughtful of this idea, they would have been able to spin it in a way that would benefit everyone. Inclusion of EMS personnel as well as a mass media campaign asking citizens, especially youth, to report criminal activity to fire and EMS companies on the street, not during incidents, would have had a greater impact on the public call for increased police presence. It would also do well to not limit the scope of victims to just SYEP employees but all District citizens and visitors. The public could have been encouraged to look for DCFEMS personnel on the street doing training, learning their area, and running errands throughout the city. Personnel could have been urged to have a greater awareness of criminal activity in their response area and firehouses could have been opened up for community watch meetings with the MPD.

Instead, much like the “rebranding” directive, the plan was simply handed down with expectation of compliance. And it is that compliance which brings us back to firefighter safety. Both sides would agree that there is no order for firefighters to directly intervene in criminal activity. Unfortunately, and as emphasized by the MPD, the firefighters have been given little direction on what exactly to do. It’s obvious that seeing a crime happen, they would request MPD, but as both the fire and police union have said, just being in the area alone is dangerous. When criminals shoot at police officers do we honestly expect them to have any reverence for fire and EMS personnel just because of the uniform? The risk of a District firefighter being killed during a violent EMS scene is minimized once MPD officers are on the scene and have control of the offender. Having firefighters on the streets of violent neighborhoods without any police presence, increases risk of injury or death when compared to remaining in quarters.

In a time when the fire service is looking at all possible means to reduce all line of duty deaths, it is a shame that some of the strongest advocates for firefighter safety have not publicly criticized this plan. If we are serious about preventing firefighter fatalities then we can’t limit our approach to the exciting fireground activities that we want to critique over and over again with our well known slogans and references.

A dead firefighter is a dead firefighter, no matter if it was due to flashover, collapse, apparatus accident, heart attack or a Glock handgun.

District Crime Data At A Glance
Washington Post Crime Reports Interactive Map, D.C.

“I know that our employees are not encouraged to intercede in any criminal activity,” Ellerbee says. “We don’t want them to do that because we aren’t trained for that. We feel that our presence and the presence of other D.C. government employees on the street will help make the city safer.”
“Fire Chief: D.C. firefighters ‘not encouraged’ to deter crime”, WTOP

“”It’s to prevent things from bubbling up. The idea is that if you have a fire engine with adults there no one is going to commit a crime,” said D.C. Deputy Mayor Paul Quander.”
“D.C. Firefighters To Help Police Streets?”, NBC Washington

“”I think it is a disaster,” said D.C. Police Union spokesman Kris Baumann. “You’re putting untrained, unsupervised, unequipped firefighters in some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in town to perform a law enforcement function.””
“D.C. Firefighters To Help Police Streets?”, NBC Washington

“Last year, several youths wearing bright blue “Mayor’s Conservation Corps” T-shirts were mugged on days they were paid, said Neville Waters, a spokesman for the Department of Employment Services, which oversees the program. He said the program’s 14,000 participants each carry a pay card, which can be used to withdraw money from banks and ATMs. This year, participants no longer sport program T-shirts, which Waters said may have made them targets last year.”
“D.C. firefighters asked to help deter crime as youth employees are paid”, The Washington Post

““We respond to violent crimes or medical emergencies, but we wait until police secure the scene — we could potentially be in harm’s way.” Edward Smith, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association”
“D.C. firefighters asked to help deter crime as youth employees are paid”, The Washington Post

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