As described in the video above by WTTG-TV/Fox 5 reporter Paul Wagner, there was a new adventure in public/press relations in the Nation's Capital in recent days. During multiple calls to those in charge of dealing with reporters, Wagner says he was told this consultant's report on the state of the DC Fire & EMS Department's fleet did not exist. Of course only a few hours after that claim, The Washington Post described the results of that report in detail. Here's Wagner's summary:
A new consultant’s report is painting a very dim picture of the D.C. Fire Department’s fleet of vehicles and the way it has procured and repaired them over the years.
The report, which two city officials said didn’t exist as of Monday night, is 214 pages long and validates long-standing complaints from the firefighters union.
The report found:
- The fire departments fleet of vehicles is in "overall poor condition."
- The fleet is in a "critical state."
- The neglect spans 15 to 20 years.
- There is poor oversight by management.
The report goes on to say a software maintenance program is vastly underused, uniformed personnel should not be in charge and the entire process should be outsourced to civilian managers.
After Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe gave a presentation to the D.C. Council Tuesday morning, FOX 5 was able to briefly question him on the report.
"We told them that we expected to see the challenges they identified in the report. There were 129 recommendations,” said Ellerbe. “We are going to compare those recommendations with other reports that we’ve received, develop a matrix, and make sure all of the recommendations that necessarily fit into our department and our ability to provide service to the city, are managed and met. It's going to take time and we have some short-term challenges, long-term challenges and mid-term challenges. They gave us some short-term solutions, some mid-term solutions and some long-term solutions and we are going to see if we can get them implemented.”
Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, who has oversight of the fire department, was given the report Monday night and called it an indictment of fleet management and maintenance.
"It shows that there is not an accountable system seeing that they are repaired, accounted for and they are replaced,” said Wells, who is a Democratic candidate for mayor. “Now I know finally the administration is starting to buy new ambulances, buying new fire trucks. I’m not convinced at all, especially after reading this report, that they have a system to now manage and maintain them and to know when they need to buy more.”
Ed Smith, President of the firefighter’s union, had only seen a summary of the report when we talked to him outside the Wilson Building.
"These are things that the union has been sounding the alarm for the last three years and it’s taken a consultant report, a considerable amount of time and three years later for these recommendations to be finally be put to paper,” he said.
Since last March, FOX 5 has documented story after story about the poor condition of the fleet, ladder trucks that failed inspection, ambulances that suddenly caught on fire and ambulances that broke down while transporting patients.
Next week, Wells will hold a hearing on the fleet and says he wants to hear how the chief plans to move forward.
And we plan on staying with this story, and will continue to ask questions and push for results.
The beleaguered D.C. fire department has made strides to correct deficiencies that led to a series of failures this past year, including slow responses to emergencies and broken equipment on ambulances, an outside consultant has found.
A summary of the report obtained by The Washington Post credits the department with purchasing more ambulances and hiring a civilian with expertise in fleet management.
But the report says improvements are still needed in a number of areas. The fleet division, where the greatest progress has been made, remains “understaffed and improperly utilized,” the consultant found, according to a summary obtained by The Washington Post.
Mr. Jones led the Prince George’s County department from early 2009 — returning to the department after retiring as a major with 25 years of service — through December 2010 when incoming County Executive Rushern L. Baker III opted to replace him. But in the short time he headed the department, Mr. Jones routinely found his policies and cost-cutting measures the target of union scrutiny.
“While Eugene Jones served as chief of the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department, we endured many challenges under his leadership,” said Andrew Pantelis, president of the Prince George’s County Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics Association. “In his short tenure, we witnessed a significant reduction in staffing which resulted in station closures, increased response times and dangerous work practices.”
While Mr. (IAFF Local 36 president Ed) Smith said he was not familiar with allegations made by the county union about Mr. Jones, he questioned the decision to hire from outside the city and the department.
“It’s just strange because when the confirmation hearings were held for Ellerbe, the city was all about hiring from within. It seems a little hypocritical to me that with One City-One Hire, that they went outside,” Mr. Smith said, referring to a program promoted by Mayor Vincent C. Gray to encourage employers to hire D.C. residents.
Public records indicate Mr. Jones lives in Beltsville and has registered his consulting business, Systems Emergency Preparedness Consultants, there. D.C. officials did not respond for comment about whether Mr. Jones would move into the District as a condition of his employment.
Starting on Monday the new assistant chief of operations for the DC Fire & EMS Department is former Prince George's County Fire & EMS Department Chief Eugene A. Jones. The information came from a special order by DC Chief Kenneth Ellerbe that has been posted on the website DCFD.com.
Jones departed as PGFD chief in December 2010.
Below are a couple of interviews I conducted with Chief Jones when I was still reporting.
This became an issue two-years-ago after the DC Police Department encrypted its radio channels and the fire department shut down its Twitter feed. While that Twitter feed is back up and police department is very active on Twitter, neither agency kept the public or press informed through Twitter during the early stages of the Navy Yard incident. Here's more from Sommer:
Quander says the department is considering a solution that would leave some traffic open while encrypting calls. He cited dispatch calls to emergency as an example of traffic that could stay unencrypted.
While MPD encrypted its radios in 2011, the push to encrypt fire department radios came only after September's Navy Yard massacre, according to Quander. "It puts law enforcement, first responders, and the public in a very precarious position," he says.
Incidentally, if there's any publicly available evidence that Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis listened to emergency broadcasts during his rampage, LL hasn't been able to find it. Quander spokesman Keith St. Clair tells LL that he's not aware of any either, but says that emergency radio streaming on the Internet is "a potentially huge problem."
Three weeks after completing the Marine Corps Marathon, a D.C. firefighter who is battling prostate cancer has a finishers medal, and he has a generous fellow runner to thank.
Preston Williams completed the Oct. 26 Marine Corps Marathon, his first such race, in 7 hours and 20 minutes, but by the time he got to the finish line, race officials were out of medals.
No worries, though – Williams was assured he'd get one in the mail. However, that didn't happen, because according to race policy, he was never issued a finishers medal because he didn't reach a specific point on the course by 12:35 p.m.
Those runners, by definition, didn't finish the course, according to a marathon spokesman.
"I made sure the cancer didn't stop me," Williams said. "I made sure the chemo didn't stop me."
That's where Frank Murphy stepped in to help Williams, who recently discovered that his cancer had come back for a third time. The Arlington resident and former Fairfax County firefighter was on the road when he read Williams story and felt compelled to act.
"For what he has gone through, what he is going through…7 hours and 20 minutes was a lot harder than probably anyone else running the race," Murphy said. "He deserves the medal."
On Monday, Murphy, whose father also suffered from prostate cancer, handed his medal off to Williams and was greeted with a bear hug. The circle of cancer survival is understood between one firefighter and another.
"I wasn't upset about not getting the medal," Williams said. "I knew in my heart I ran it, but I think I just wanted it more for the guys that have prostate cancer that are out there fighting it and pushing through it every day."
At about 5:00 PM EST, Washington Times Reporter Andrea Noble reported on Twitter that the wounded firefighter was in surgery. Noble also says that the firefighter is a captain in the DC Fire & EMS Department.
Police say that two firefighters appeared to have been assaulted and one of them was shot.
The incident happened at the 2000 block of Bruce Place, SE around 3:00 p.m. on Saturday when the two firefighters were approached during an attempted robbery. One of them was shot and taken to the hospital with reportedly non-life threatening injuries, police said.
Take the time to read this article by Amy Brittain. It’s about Martha Rigsby, a woman who is legendary in the DC Fire & EMS Department. Rigsby is the most frequent user of 911 in the entire time 911 has been in operation in the Nation’s Capital. According to Brittain, 911 has been called for Martha Rigsby 226 in this year alone with 117 trips to the hospital by ambulance. This been going on since 1977.
After all of this time the District of Columbia government is finally taking some action to reduce the amount of resources Rigsby ties up each year. They have gone to court seeking a guardian for the 58-year-old woman.
One thing that sticks out in this article is the detail in which department officials are willing or able to talk about Martha Rigsby. There is no explanation on how they are navigating HIPAA regulations to be able to talk with a reporter about Rigsby’s situation. I don’t recall such openness from the DC Fire & EMS Department about any specific patient since HIPAA’s been around.
These are “uncharted waters,” said David Miramontes, medical director of the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.Public documents and legal proceedings detail Rigsby’s 911 habits and assessments of her mental state and medical problems. They also reveal continued concerns from D.C. officials about the impact of one woman’s troubles on public-health and safety resources.
According to testimony during the court hearings, Rigsby’s calls follow the same general pattern. She feels faint and collapses. About 40 percent of the time, she dials 911 on her own. Other times, she’s out in the District when passersby see her fall and call for help, the testimony indicated.About 55 percent of the time, she refuses to be transported in an ambulance and signs a waiver allowing emergency responders to leave.
According to court records, Abayomi Jaji, a psychiatrist with the city’s Department of Behavioral Health, said that Rigsby continues “to place herself in real danger of bodily injuries from falls under the claim of ‘seizures’ or ‘Narcolepsy,’ which have never been correlated with medical findings.”Jaji also said that Rigsby lacks the mental capacity to take care of herself as evidenced by “almost every other day calls to 911.”
A six-week police investigation into fires aboard three D.C. ambulances in August — two on the same day — found no evidence that they were intentionally set, according to the results of an investigation that is to be made public Wednesday.
The findings by police largely support the conclusions reached by fire investigators within days of the incidents — that the fires were most likely accidents caused by a variety of engine problems, such as fuel leaks or electrical malfunctions. The precise causes were not determined.
Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul A. Quander Jr. ordered the police review to ensure that “nothing untoward” had occurred in what he described as an unusual number of fires in a a short time.
Firefighters in the District had to use a ladder truck to take a sick toddler to the hospital Saturday night when they were told the nearest ambulance was at least five miles away.
The child was having a seizure and the men on the truck did not want to wait. It is a decision that has left the boy’s parents both pleased and perturbed.
Derrick and Denise Jones are praising the actions of the firefighters who came to their Northeast D.C. home Saturday night to care for their sick toddler, but they are confounded by the fact an ambulance was not there when they needed one.
Denise Jones rode to the hospital in the truck with her child and now she wants to know why.
Little Derrick is doing fine Monday — fully recovered from a viral infection that launched him into a scary seizure Saturday night.
“I saw my son foaming at the mouth real heavy,” said Derrick Jones in an interview Monday. “It was pouring down rain. There was a lot of foam around his mouth and his eyes rolled into the back of his head.”
Father and son were in the car and Derrick Sr. headed right for home where he found his wife and called 911.
“When I came out, he was upset,” said Denise Jones, the toddler’s mother. “Everybody was trying to calm him down. I was calm and I opened the door and looked at him and he was just looking out in the distance and I called his name and he wouldn’t look at me and I shook him and it was like a blank stare on his face.”
Called to the scene were firefighters on Truck 13 who went right to work.
But when they heard how long it would take for an ambulance to arrive, the firefighters took the child in their arms and told mom to get on board.
“So I was like, wow, we are going to have to go on a fire truck,” said Denise. “There is a seat in the middle, so he is in the middle, the firemen are on the side, and I was in a seat across the them and they were tending to him and calling his name and trying to see if he would focus.”
And off they went to Children’s Hospital where 2-year-old Derrick was treated for about four hours and released.
With time now to think about it, Derrick and Denise Jones have nothing but praise for the firefighters, but are bewildered by the need to go in a truck.
“That is crazy,” said the toddler’s dad. “I felt helpless. I thought when you asked for medical help, they sent an ambulance. You know, I felt very helpless.”
The couple says they have been following the ongoing troubles of D.C. Fire and EMS, but to experience firsthand was a shock.
“You pay your city taxes and you are not getting services, especially in an emergency,” said Denise Jones.
“I felt very helpless,” said Derrick Jones. “I was scared for my son. I thought he was going to die. Yeah, we were really scared. I was very upset. If you had seen me, you would say he was very upset. It scared me to death. I never experienced anything like that with him.”
Denise Jones was so shaken by the entire experience that she stayed home from work Monday to be with her son.
This is not the first time a patient has been taken to a hospital in the District on a fire truck.
There have been other recent high profile incidents as well.
It is a judgment call by the firefighters on board.
D.C. Fire and EMS released this statement to FOX 5:
“The closest transport units available at the time of dispatch were identified because the others were already on emergency calls. The department commends the quick action taken by the members of Truck 13 who recognized the need to transport immediately.”
There are some follow-up stories in the local press that focus on emergency operations during Monday’s shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard. The story above from WUSA9.com is about the work of the United States Park Police Eagle helicopter crew that handled both EMS and law enforcement roles. You can read more from reporter Kristin Fisher here.
Below, reporter Ken Molestina questions the readiness of the DC Fire & EMS Department. Specifically Molestina looks at the staffing on Monday and the downgrading of nine ALS units to BLS due to a paramedic shortage. Here is what Molestina discovered:
The DC firefighters Union tells WUSA 9 that a total of 9 emergency response units were downgraded from advanced life support status to basic life support during the Navy Yard shooting.
In others words there was no paramedic on board those units. That means the personnel on board could only provide minimal emergency care on the scene.
Medic units 7,8, 27, 30, 19, 24, 31 were all downgraded. Paramedic engines 20, 31were also downgraded and didn’t have a paramedic on board.
It’s unclear how many of those units responded to the scene of the massacre. DC Fire & EMS didn’t return any of WUSA 9′s phone calls or e-mails.
Above is the DC Fire & EMS Department radio traffic from yesterday’s shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard posted to YouTube by firefighterdispatch (originally from Broadcastify.com). It begins at approximately 8:35 AM (ET), about 20 minutes after the shootings started.
The deadly attack at the Washington Navy Yard was carried out by one of the military’s own: a defense contract employee and former Navy reservist who used a valid pass to get onto the installation and started firing inside a building, killing 12 people before he was slain in a gun battle with police.
The motive for the mass shooting – the deadliest on a military installation in the U.S. since the tragedy at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009 – was a mystery, investigators said. But a profile of the lone gunman, a 34-year-old Aaron Alexis, was coming into focus. He was described as a Buddhist who had also had flares of rage, complained about the Navy and being a victim of discrimination and had several run-ins with law enforcement, including two shootings.
Monday’s onslaught at a single building at the highly secure Navy Yard unfolded about 8:20 a.m. in the heart of the nation’s capital, less than four miles from the White House and two miles from the Capitol.
It put all of Washington on edge. Mayor Vincent Gray said there was no indication it was a terrorist attack, but he added that the possibility had not been ruled out.
“This is a horrific tragedy,” he said.
Alexis carried three weapons: an AR-15 assault rifle, a shotgun, and a handgun that he took from a police officer at the scene, according to two federal law enforcement officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation. The AR-15 is the same type of rifle used in last year’s mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school that killed 20 students and six women. The weapon was also used in the shooting at a Colorado movie theater that killed 12 and wounded 70.
For much of the day, authorities said they were looking for a possible second attacker who may have been disguised in an olive-drab military-style uniform. But by late Monday night, they said they were convinced the shooting was the work of a lone gunman, and the lockdown around the area was eased.
“We do now feel comfortable that we have the single and sole person responsible for the loss of life inside the base today,” Washington police Chief Cathy Lanier said.
President Barack Obama lamented yet another mass shooting in the U.S. that he said took the lives of American “patriots.” He promised to make sure “whoever carried out this cowardly act is held responsible.”
The FBI took charge of the investigation.
Valerie Parlave, head of the FBI’s field office in Washington, said Alexis had access to the Navy Yard as a defense contractor and used a valid pass.
The Washington Navy Yard is a sprawling, 41-acre labyrinth of buildings and streets protected by armed guards and metal detectors, and employees have to show their IDs at doors and gates. More than 18,000 people work there.
The rampage took place at Building 197, the headquarters for Naval Sea Systems Command, which buys, builds and maintains ships and submarines. About 3,000 people work at headquarters, many of them civilians.
Witnesses on Monday described a gunman opening fire from a fourth-floor overlook, aiming down on people on the main floor, which includes a glass-walled cafeteria. Others said a gunman fired at them in a third-floor hallway.
As emergency vehicles and law enforcement officers flooded the streets, a helicopter hovered, nearby schools were locked down and airplanes at Reagan National Airport were grounded so they would not interfere with law-enforcement choppers.
In addition to the DC Fire & EMS Department and Naval District of Washington units, there is mutual aid from Maryland, including medevac helicopters.
From press conference at 12:10 PM (ET)
Mayor Vincent Gray says: “As far as we know this is an isolated incident”.
DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier: Very preliminary. Will not be taking questions. Call came in for shooting at the Navy Yard shortly after 8:15 AM. Active shooter teams were deployed within 7 minutes. Confirms one DC police officer was shot. One shooter is deceased. Will not give confirmed numbers but says there are multiple victims inside deceased. Still potential of two shooters unaccounted for. Will not answer questions.
As many as three shooters, including one in fatigues, killed at least four people and wounded eight others in a rampage at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, police said, spreading fear and chaos across the region as authorities tried to contain the incident.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said in a mid-day news conference that one of the suspected shooters is dead, while authorities are looking for two other possible suspects wearing military style clothing.
“The big concern for us right now is that we have potentially two other shooters that we have not located at this point,” Lanier said.
Lanier described one of the possible shooters as a white male wearing what appeared to be a khaki tan military uniform and a beret, and carrying a handgun. She said police also are looking for a black man, about 50, wearing an olive military-style uniform, and possessing a “long gun.”
As many as seven people were shot – two of them police officers – on the grounds of the Washington Navy Yard Monday morning, and the shooter has not yet been apprehended, authorities confirmed.
One of those shot was a D.C. police officer, reported NBC News’ Pete Williams.
The U.S. Navy says three shots were fired at 8:20 a.m. inside Building #197 at the Naval Sea Systems Command Headquarters, 1336 Isaac Hull Ave. in the Southeast section of the District. U.S. military officials say the gunman – armed with an AR-15, a military-style assault weapon – first shot an U.S. base security officer.
Authorities say a base police officer also was seriously injured.
CBS NEWS and the Associated Press say Navy officials report six people have died after a shooting at Washington Navy Yard on Monday morning. Police say one shooter is believed to be dead and they are looking for two other possible shooters.
Police say 12 people were shot, including a police officer, Navy Yard base officer, and 8 civilians, inside the Naval Sea Systems Command Headquarters building (Bldg. 197) at 8:20 a.m.
CBS NEWS reports that one civilian employee disgruntled about a job dispute opened fire. CBS reports that employee is dead.
A Washington Hospital Center official says staff is treating one female victim shot in head and another female victim shot in the shoulder. The official also said that “There are people who will not be transported here from the scene because they are deceased.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been fighting and winning freedom of speech cases involving DC firefighters since the 1970s. Chief Kenneth Ellerbe is just the latest in a long line of chiefs who have gotten the attention of the ACLU after Firefighter/Paramedic Jon Botwin was placed on desk duty over a letter he wrote to the City Council.
The paramedic who wrote a letter to the D.C. City Council warning of a “dire situation” in the District has now been off the street for a week–sitting in an office doing nothing.
Jon has not been questioned or even told what charges he might be facing–circumstances the American Civil Liberties Union sees as nothing short of retaliation.
On Thursday the ACLU sent a letter to Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe asking for an explanation and pointing out the paramedic had a clear right to communicate his concerns to the council under the whistle blower protection act and the first amendment.
The fire department says it placed Botwin on “administrative duties” after “very serious concerns” were raised about the information he disclosed. A claim the ACLU says the facts do not support.
When Jon Botwin sat down to write the city council and tell the members about his efforts to save the life of a little girl he did not include any identifying information.
Despite that, D.C. Fire and EMS put out a news release saying the privacy officer had concerns HIPAA rules had been violated and Botwin was ordered off his engine and told to report to headquarters.
Art Spitzer with the ACLU has read Botwin’s letter and sees no violation at all.
“All he said was a five month old baby had died, I can’t see how that possibly violates patient privacy”, said Spitzer in an interview Thursday.
In his letter to the chief, Spitzer also wonders why the investigation has even gone on this long.
“This is a classic case in the D.C. Fire Department, I have been litigating cases against the D.C. Fire Department since 1980 and I have seen this kind of thing repeatedly where the Fire Chief wants to let people know who’s the boss around here,” said Spitzer.
As FOX 5 has reported, Botwin’s letter also pointed out less than half the paramedic positions were staffed the day the little girl went into cardiac arrest. Including the two units stationed closest to the girls apartment.
Botwin also told the council citizens are in danger, the remaining paramedics are burning out and it’s only getting worse.
He spoke out on the FOX 5 ten o’clock news last Friday.
“If you call 911 and you want or need an ALS provider the question is do you want it coming from over here, farther away or the one that is supposed to be there and if people knew how many times that the city is left with less than half the number of paramedics, less than half the paramedics we are supposed to have, even though that number doesn’t come close to what similar cities with similar size have, it’s ridiculous, people’s lives are hurting every single day, you just don’t hear about it or it isn’t your family yet,” Botwin said in a live interview with Anchor Maureen Umeh.
Jon Botwin is not the first firefighter to be taken off the street for speaking out.
Robert Alvarado was demoted after he gave an interview to FOX 5 and union president Ed Smith was transferred after he was critical of the chief.
In a request for comment, D.C. Fire and EMS released this statement.
“The Department has received a letter of inquiry from the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital regarding the detail of Paramedic Jon Botwin.
The Department will not provide comment or respond to any inquiries until the investigation is complete.”
I wasn’t sure I was going to again post my personal account of September 11, 2001 until a few days ago. That’s when I came across a news article on the web talking about the terrorist attacks of 12-years-ago. It mentioned that one of those attacks occurred “on a plane that crash-landed in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania”. Obviously the details of that enormously tragic day are already muddy in the minds of many, even those whose job it is to keep others informed about such events. It was a good reminder why those who witnessed this history in New York, Arlington, Virginia and Shanksville, Pennsylvania need to keep telling their stories.
Mine is just the story of an observer who had a close-up view for a little while at the Pentagon. There are much more important stories out there about amazingly heroic efforts to save lives and to get people out of harm’s way. Please make sure you, your children and grandchildren know these stories.
The account below came about because in October of 2001 I was asked by journalist Allison Gilbert to contribute my experiences at the Pentagon to a book called Covering Catastrophe: Broadcast Journalists Report September 11. While I knew I was only one of many TV and radio reporters and anchors who would be contributing to the book, and Allison would only be using a couple of blurbs, it was an opportunity for me to write a chronology of the day and put a few thoughts down. It concludes with a postscript written 40-days after the attacks that looks at the public’s perception of firefighters following the enormous sacrifice made by 343 members of the Fire Department of New York.
September 11, 2001
8:52 AM: Spending time with my son is always the best way to start the day. Sam, almost two years old, is eating his breakfast. I bring my toast into the den to sit with him. The television is on so we can do what we usually do in the morning, watch my wife, Hillary Howard, Sam’s mom, do the weather on WUSA-TV. Instead of the “Early Show” ending to make way for local news, I see the open to a “CBS News Special Report”. I turn the sound up, but don’t need Bryant Gumbel to tell me that something is very wrong at one of the World Trade Center towers. The thick, black smoke pouring out of many windows and from the roof makes it very clear this is a major disaster in the making. Gumbel says there is a report that a plane hit the building. Those words send me out of the room and upstairs to quickly finish getting dressed.
9:03 AM: I occasionally glance at the TV upstairs. A little slow to comprehend some of what it going on, it dawns on me that this appears to be a crystal clear day. I am starting to wonder if this plane crash is really an accident. As I think about calling the newsroom to suggest we might be dealing with a terrorist attack of some sort, any doubts I had are immediately erased. My head quickly turns toward to the TV as I hear a woman say to Byrant Gumbel, “Oh, there is another one! Another plane just hit! Oh, my gosh! Another plane has hit! Another building! Flew right into the middle of it. Explosion.”
It hit me instantly that our lives have suddenly changed.
9:05 AM: On the phone to the station, I talk to Dave Roberts, our news director. I am convinced that if the people who did this were organized enough to quickly hit two targets like the World Trade Center towers, Washington would be next. We decide I will head into town to start looking around for increased security measures and be ready if another attack occurs.
9:10 AM: No time for our normal goodbye ritual. I give Sam a quick kiss and hug. Sam says something about “Jay Jay”. “Jay Jay the Jet Plane”, Sam’s favorite TV show, comes on soon. Not knowing what he may have already seen on TV this morning, I tell him calmly that “Jay Jay” is having a bad day. With the uncertainty of what was ahead, I didn’t want to leave Sam. I knew, though, he was in good hands with Glenda, the woman who takes care of him while we are at work.
9:15 AM: Realizing my good friend, Dan Patrick, our night assignment manager, is probably asleep and has no idea what is going on, I wake him. Dan doesn’t believe me when I describe the events of the morning along with my concern that Washington is next. Certainly I would have thought this was one of his sick practical jokes if the situation were reversed. Hanging up, I’m not sure he is convinced that this is for real.
9:25 AM: My first stop, the State Department. I circle the block and notice some extra officers being deployed around the building. Other street activity appears normal. Checking out the Pentagon never enters my mind.
9:38 AM: East bound on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House, I turn north on 17th Street. At that moment the scanners in my car come alive. On numerous police and fire radio frequencies, people are yelling that a plane hit the Pentagon. Making a fast U-turn, I see the smoke rising across the Potomac River. I get the assignment desk on the phone. It’s a bad connection. I yell into the phone, “Pentagon, Pentagon, Pentagon. Send everyone to the Pentagon. I should be there soon.”
I carefully bust a few lights on southbound 17th Street. Making a right turn, traffic is light on westbound Independence Avenue.
9:41 AM: Anchors Mike Buchanan and Andrea Roane break into CBS coverage to report that there has been an apparent plane crash at the Pentagon. They have distant, but clear pictures of the Pentagon ablaze from our rooftop camera in Rosslyn.
9:43 AM: There is also little traffic heading outbound on the Memorial Bridge. Across the river, I now have a distant view of the Pentagon. The very black smoke I am seeing is surely caused by the fuel, now burning, that was in the plane’s tanks. I call the control room to try and get on the air, but the call cuts out as the anchors lead to me.
9:44 AM: Somehow I end up on southbound Washington Boulevard directly in front of the Pentagon helipad. That is good news, but for the moment it does me no good because there is wireless gridlock. I am unable to get a phone call out.
9:46 AM: I have my home video camera out and on the tripod, rolling off a few shots. The phone still isn’t working.
9:48 AM: Walking down Washington Boulevard is Heather Cabot a recently hired reporter for WUSA. She tells me her phone isn’t getting out either. I ask her to take over my camera and I will work on trying to get a phone call to the station. Heather tells me she is with photographer Mike Trammel. I look back to see Trammel and put my camera away.
9:52 AM: Heather’s phone finally gets through. I describe the scene as firefighters from Ft. Meyer and National Airport put the first water and foam on the burning Pentagon. Some people are looking at the sky, making sure another plane isn’t approaching. I suggest to Heather, that it is probably a good idea for us to do the same. Amazingly traffic on northbound Washington Boulevard has not been blocked and drivers are just whizzing by the burning Pentagon as they head to work.
A familiar red van pulls a few feet past us. It is one of our microwave vans with Bruce Bookholtz at the wheel. I am a bit amazed that, with no communication, we all end up at the same spot.
We hear a number of small pops and explosions. I am guessing those are tires popping from the vehicles that were parked against the building and are now burning, or possibly some small canisters exploding. Among the vehicles on fire is the new crash/rescue fire truck, belonging to the Ft. Meyer Fire Department. It is stationed at the Pentagon and is routinely on hand for helicopter landings and takeoffs, in case of an emergency. It is a fire truck designed for just this rare event, a plane crash, and it can’t be used.
9:55 AM: Heather tells me to look down on the street around us. I was so intent on watching the burning Pentagon, I hadn’t noticed there are what appear to be small pieces from the airplane at my feet. I had already seen the large amount of debris scattered on the Pentagon lawn, but so far no piece is large enough to be easily identified as an airplane part.
9:57 AM: Our first live video is on the air. You see flames crawling up the familiar face of the Pentagon along with some of the first victims as they are carried away from the building.
9:59 AM: I am on the air with Michael Kelly, an eyewitness Heather pulled out of the crowd. Kelly was driving on nearby I-395 when he saw the plane take aim on the Pentagon.
10:00 AM: Anchor Andrea Roane interrupts me, “Dave, Dave, Dave. We want to break in, because we want to go back to New York, where Dan Rather is anchoring our coverage, where one of the towers at the World Trade Center has collapsed”.
These words stop me in my tracks for a moment. I have no TV monitor to see this for myself. Just Andrea’s words. It doesn’t compute in my brain. I had been a firefighter. I had studied high-rise firefighting. There had been a number of major high-rise fires throughout the world that burned for many hours. To my knowledge there had never been a catastrophic collapse of an entire building. This was just one of many things happening today that no one has ever had to deal with.
Knowing how aggressive New York firefighters are, I realize there must be scores of dead rescuers. The last pictures I saw out of New York were from an hour ago. Even then it was pretty apparent, from the amount of fire, that anyone at the impact points and above had little chance of survival.
10:05 AM: They come back to me for our first interview with someone who was in the Pentagon at the time of the attack. Two or three men on stretchers pass by us. It is our first close-up look at the injured and they are severely, if not critically burned over a good portion of their bodies. These victims are flown out by helicopter to a hospital burn unit. Their lives will never be the same.
10:10 AM: A Virginia State Trooper starts moving everyone back. There is concern another plane is coming toward the Pentagon. We don’t move.
10:15 AM: As they come back to our live shot, five floors suddenly collapse around the jet’s impact point. There is now a large gash on the west side of the Pentagon.
10:18 AM: People start running away from the Pentagon. This time, FBI agents are telling us another plane is just minutes out. They order us to move immediately. I am able to get in a few quick words, attempting to explain to Mike and Andrea what is happening, before the transmitter is turned off and the live truck’s mast starts coming down.
10:28 AM: We move just a short distance off Washington Boulevard and down the ramp to Columbia Pike. As Bruce tries to re-establish a signal, I hear through my earpiece that the second tower in New York has collapsed. I just can’t imagine what it going on in Manhattan. The death toll must be staggering. I recall my wife once telling me her grandfather hauled truckloads of steel used to build the Twin Towers. Now those buildings don’t exist.
10:32 AM: We are again feeding live pictures of the burning Pentagon.
10:36 AM: Witnesses are giving different descriptions of the plane that hit the building. Some say it is an American Airlines 757, while others believe it was a business jet. The fire is still burning out of control.
10:38 AM: Mike Buchanan asks me if I have seen any large pieces of an airplane at the scene. As I answer this question, he interrupts me,“Hold on Dave. Hold on just a second. We’ve got a bulletin from AP. A large plane has just crashed in Western Pennsylvania.”
Mike also reads an AP report about a car bomb going off at the State Department. We are just across the river from State and we didn’t hear an explosion.
10:42 AM: An F-16 makes a low pass near the Pentagon. That, along with the plane crash in Pennsylvania, makes me think there was something to the threats that forced us move away from the building. I notice a large group of people huddled under the Washington Boulevard overpass.
10:52 AM: A Lt. Colonel with Air Force Public Affairs passes our location. We snag him. He urges people to keep far away from the Pentagon. If you have loved ones you can’t account for, he asks that you not come to the Pentagon. He has no idea of the number of dead or injured. Not much in the way of information, but it is the first official word.
WUSA anchorman Gordon Peterson, who was originally sent to nearby National Airport for a flight to New York, arrives at our location.
10:54 AM: Mike and Andrea confirm there was no car bomb at the State Department. A little bit of good news.
11:06 AM: Gordon interviews Mike Walter, a television reporter for “USA Today Live”. Mike, on his way to work in Rosslyn, witnessed the Pentagon crash and offers the most vivid description so far.
11:10 AM: We are again ordered to move our live truck further away from the Pentagon.
11:31 AM: Our shot is back up. This time, from a hill in front of the Quick Mart. This Citgo, looks like a normal service station, but it is exclusively for use by military personnel.
11:39 AM: The fire is spreading. Suddenly there are flames showing in a number of windows far from the point of impact.
People again start moving quickly from the Pentagon. There is more talk of another hijacked plane heading our way.
11:52 AM: Again, more people rush from the Pentagon.
12:16 PM: I listen to Dan Patrick, with a phone report, describe his attempts to get from Northern Virginia to the TV station in Northwest Washington. Dan says he had to show identification to a police officer and explain his business in the city. Only then was he allowed to cross Key Bridge into Georgetown. The city is in lockdown.
12:18 PM: Gordon notices an ambulance convoy from the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad pull up along Columbia Pike. It was a repeat of a scene I had witnessed, just on the other side of the Pentagon, almost 20 years earlier. The same Maryland squad sent a similar contingent after Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the 14th Street Bridge on January 13th, 1982.
12:20 PM: If I am not convinced how much turmoil there is in the country from these attacks, this does it. Mike and Andrea announce Disney World is being evacuated.
12:28 PM: A Navy public affairs officer officially confirms what has been painfully obvious. Besides the dead on the aircraft, Pentagon workers are dead inside the building. He has no idea how many people didn’t get out.
12:32 PM: Talking on the air with Mike and Andrea, it still isn’t clear which of the four hijacked jets smashed into the Pentagon. Right now, American Airlines believes the hijacked flight from Dulles crashed into one of the towers in New York.
Police move everyone, including the news media, off the hillside. Bruce pulls the truck around to the other end of the service station lot. This fourth move winds up being our last. It becomes home for the better part of two weeks.
1:19 PM: The first official briefing from the Pentagon. Rear Admiral Craig Quigley, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, announces that this was “a full assault on the United States of America”. The admiral says there was no way to prepare for an attack like this. I am shaking my head at the fact that the spokesman for the military headquarters of the United States of America is forced to talk to the world from a service station parking lot.
1:30 PM: CNN Pentagon Correspondent Jamie McIntyre joins me on the air for a few minutes. Our first time working together was at WTOP radio, 20 years ago, covering the Air Florida plane crash. Jamie says they always anticipated a terrorist attack at the Pentagon, but figured it would be on the other side of the building where all the top brass is located.
Off camera, Jamie tells me that just yesterday his son’s class in middle school had a discussion about the bombing in Oklahoma City. Jamie’s son told the class he always worries about his dad being hurt by an attack like this, because his dad works at the Pentagon. Jamie tried getting word to the school to let his son know he was okay.
1:50 PM: Andrea announces that the Urban Search and Rescue Team from Fairfax County, known as Virginia Task Force 1, has been activated and will be at the Pentagon shortly.
American Airlines now says they aren’t sure where Flight 77 ended up.
WUSA-TV’s Mike Trammel’s shot of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (third from the right) helping carry one of the injured from the Pentagon to a waiting ambulance.
1:56 PM: Admiral Quigley sets the tone for his second briefing by saying “you are going to have a lot more questions than I have answers.” Quigley doesn’t have an answer to the one question all of us are asking. He can only say, “we know there are casualties.”
He tells us Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was among the Pentagon workers hurrying from the building after the explosion. Rumsfeld helped the injured for about 15 minutes, getting several people onto stretchers. Then he went back inside to the National Military Command Center. The command center is reportedly smoky, but not damaged. (NOTE: Approaching the one-year anniversary of the attack, CNN’s Vito Maggiolo contacted me after looking at the raw video from September 11 shot by WUSA-TV photojournalist Mike Trammel. While many people had viewed that video, and all of it played out in front my own eyes, Vito was the only person to notice that one of the men carrying a stretcher with one of the first victims removed from the Pentagon was Secretary Rumsfeld.)
2:10 PM: Virginia Task Force 1 arrives. Normally Fairfax County’s Urban Search and Rescue Team is sent to some far off land by way of military transport. This time it was just a quick drive down Interstate 66 to the county on its eastern border.
2:23 PM: WUSA Photographer Greg Guise is able to provide some details surrounding the hijacked jet that went down in Pennsylvania. Greg grew up a few miles from the crash site and has business interests in the community. Greg relays a description of the scene from a radio engineer friend in Somerset County.
2:43 PM: For the past few hours we’ve seen no ambulances leave the area with lights and siren. We’re pretty certain that anyone alive is already being treated. Now reporter Jennifer Ryan, at the Virginia Hospital Center, confirms no more victims are expected from the Pentagon.
2:49 PM: Mike and Andrea report it’s now fairly clear the plane wreckage at the Pentagon is from American Airlines Flight 77 out of Dulles.
2:55 PM: Rear Admiral Stephen Pietropaoli, U.S. Navy Office of Information, tells us that in the recently renovated wedge of the Pentagon, where the attack occurred, there is blast resistant glass on the windows. In the days to come we hear from many who believe that this very expensive glass saved lives.
3:53 PM: Now briefing us at the Citgo press center, Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clark and Defense Protective Service Chief John Jester. Jester tells us the impact from the jet extends through to the C ring, the middle of the 5 rings of the Pentagon. All we see from our location, is that a portion of the E ring, the outer most portion of the Pentagon, has crumbled.
Clark admits she can’t confirm that all members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are accounted for. That news is a bit unsettling. We also hear about a Navy captain who burned his hands rescuing others. Clark says that man is already back from the hospital and wants to be put to work again, helping at the Pentagon.
4:12 PM: Rumors have been spreading that the U.S. military brought down the hijacked plane in Pennsylvania. Rear Admiral Craig Quigley says, “That didn’t happen. I cannot explain to you the cause of the crash of the airplane near Pittsburgh, but it was not engagement by a U.S. fighter aircraft.”
The Pentagon now confirms all the Joint Chiefs are accounted for.
4:54 PM: The second Urban Search and Rescue Team arrives. This one is from Montgomery County, Maryland.
5:04 PM: I see International Association of Firefighters General President, Harold Schaitberger and his press person, George Burke arrive at the Citgo. I grab Harold for a live interview. Harold has been in close touch with his people in New York. We learn for the first time that more than 200 New York firefighters probably perished when the towers collapsed. He calls firefighters “our domestic soldiers”. Schaitberger says the civilian death toll will be in the thousands. Off camera he lets me know that much of FDNY’s command staff was lost, including the Chief of the Department and the head of Special Operations.
5:36 PM: Harold Schaitberger joins me again with the story of two Ft. Meyer firefighters who were at the Pentagon when the crash occurred. They were standing near the fire truck we saw burning this morning. Both men were knocked down and injured by the force of the crash. They helped rescue a group of people through some of the office windows, before the firefighters themselves were hospitalized.
6:42 PM: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield briefs the press. For the first time since the crash, the press conference is held inside the Pentagon. I watch it from our van. Pushed for a body count, Rumsfeld says, “It will not be a few”. The Pentagon “will be in business tomorrow”.
8:45 PM: New information has been slow in coming, but marching up Columbia Pike with the television lights reflecting off his orange vest is a member of Montgomery County’s Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Team. Captain Scott Graham gives us the first solid information about the fire and rescue efforts. Scott becomes a lifeline for information in the days to come.
Despite the large fire still burning, Graham says the USAR team members are always optimistic about finding people alive. He says, “We have to look at it as a rescue effort for us. We have to look at it as a very unstable building. And our job, pretty much, is to take the name of the Pentagon off the outside of it and go in and rescue the people that are in there”.
9:52 PM: Another familiar face shows up at the Citgo. Ed Plaugher is the fire chief of Arlington County. The Pentagon is in Arlington County, Virginia and Chief Plaugher is the man in charge of the fire and rescue operations. None of the other reporters nearby seem to know who Plaugher is, or if they do, they don’t care. Ed joins me live at 10:00 PM with the first solid news about the loss of life at the Pentagon. There are no figures as of yet, but the Pentagon has given him a range to work with. Plaugher says it is believed that anywhere from 100 to 800 people work in the area where the impact occurred. While that is fairly large range, it lets us know that the death toll will likely be in the hundreds at the Pentagon, as compared to the thousands presumed dead in New York. Plaugher’s guess is, when it is over, the number at the Pentagon will be in the low hundreds.
Plaugher later receives some heat when his statements are taken out of context. Some news reports claim Plaugher estimated the death toll at 800. Days later we learn that 125 were killed on the ground and 64 perished aboard Flight 77.
On another topic Chief Plaugher says, “To be honest with you, we always were afraid of the Pentagon as being a target, but never in our wildest dreams to this extent. I am still in disbelief.”
11:03 PM: Fire has broken through in at least four places along the Pentagon roof. Chief Plaugher says aggressive interior firefighting operations will cease until daylight. But, crews overnight, will continue to pour in water from the outside to keep the fire from spreading further.
I relay a phone conversation with Scott Graham a few minutes before our 11:00 PM newscast. Scott and most of the USAR team members from Montgomery and Fairfax Counties worked very closely with Deputy Chief Ray Downey from the Fire Department of New York. Downey, commander of FDNY’s Special Operations, is unaccounted for after the towers collapsed. Scott says Downey commanded all the USAR teams in Oklahoma City after the bombing there. He says Downey wrote the book on urban search and rescue. Skills Downey taught will be utilized in New York and Arlington by hundreds of rescuers in the difficult days to come. His voice cracking, Scott tells me, “We lost a damn good man”.
We lost a lot of good men and women today.
October 27, 2001
11:15 PM: As I am looking back at September 11th, I have just spent a week covering the deaths of two Washington, D.C. postal workers, from inhalation anthrax. Others are hospitalized because of anthrax that was sent through the U.S. Mail. No one knows how this story will play out.
There is a lot of uncertainty since September 11th. Our war efforts, our security in public places, our ability to travel safely by air, our economic future. Like all parents, Hillary and I worry over what this will mean for our young son.
This much I’m sure of. Through the thick smoke hanging over New York and Washington, it became clear that some remarkable people walk among us.
Some are just ordinary citizens who put other people’s lives ahead of their own. Staying behind, trying to make sure everyone gets out.
Others are paid to protect us. But I don’t think anyone believes for a moment that a police officer, paramedic or firefighter’s modest salary is enough to encourage someone to walk into the places that these men and women did on September 11th. It takes much more than money. It takes heart, and courage, and a belief you can make a difference.
I know firefighters the best. Six years in a busy volunteer company during my youth, and almost 30 years making the fire service my beat as a reporter, have given me some perspective.
In many big cities, including our Nation’s Capital, the fire departments have long taken a back seat when it comes to funding. Citizens who can tell you how many times the police patrol car comes down their block, or how many officers are walking the beat, have no idea how many firefighters are on duty in the neighborhood fire station. Political leaders know this to be true and through the years have made drastic cuts in fire protection, often without protest from the public.
Through the years, I have reported many stories where citizens and firefighters have died because of these cuts. Just last week an understaffed ladder company became an issue in Houston, Texas, after a fire captain died in a high-rise apartment building fire.
Firefighters are can-do people. Their skills at making things work under adversity often hides from the public the shortcomings in their staffing, equipment and facilities.
Some of the good that has come from the sacrifices made by the 343 members of FDNY who died on September 11th, is the recognition, by the public, of what firefighters really do.
A recent trip to Arlington County Fire Station #2 brought this home. The firehouse is covered with cards and letters from all over the world. Many are from school children, with drawings of the firefighters in action at the Pentagon and World Trade Center. All say thanks.
Veterans of more than 20 years in the fire service are astounded by the reaction these days as they drive through local streets. People stop and wave. When the firefighters walk into a building in uniform, they are applauded.
On October 7th, I was at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Just two hours before military action in Afghanistan began, President Bush told the stories of some of the 99 domestic soldiers who died in the line of duty in the United States last year. I watched as spouses and children received a flag and a red rose, and heard a bell toll in honor of their loved one, our hero.
I have forced myself on most days since September 11th to read the New York Post, Daily News and Times and the accounts of the daily funerals of New York firefighters. It is difficult to read about the pain their wives and children are going through. It is the least, though, that we can do. It is important to remember this unbelievable sacrifice.
My hope is that people all over the United States are paying very close attention to these same stories of heroism. My hope is that they don’t forget these stories when someone is trying to save a little money and close down their local firehouse.
Right now when Sam sees a fire truck he says, “Evan”. “Revvin’ Evan” is the animated fire engine on that “Jay Jay the Jet Plane” cartoon show he loves. When Sam is old enough, I will make sure he knows a lot more about firefighters. I will make sure Sam understands exactly who those people were climbing up the clogged, smoke filled, stairways, as he sat in his high chair, watching the first pictures transmitted from New York, at 8:52 AM, on September 11th, 2001.
A DC paramedic who publicly criticized staff shortages this week says the fire department has now placed him on administrative leave.
The paramedic, Jon Botwin, wrote a letter to city council last week following the death of a 5-month-old baby girl.
In his email, a copy of which was obtained by Fox 5 News, the nine-year veteran firefighter told councilmembers “our city is in danger” because of what Botwin calls “ridiculous mis-management” of the city’s paramedic corps.
“All I can say right now is I’ve had to report to the fire chief’s office and I’ve been directed that I’m placed on administrative leave,” Botwin told us outside the Reeves Center late Thursday afternoon. “That’s all I can say at this point.”
Botwin says he was supposed to be driving Engine 26, housed on Rhode Island Ave NE until 7am Friday. He was also serving as its lone paramedic.
Botwin’s letter was written after the death of Zariah Bolden. Botwin was the first paramedic to arrive at her North Capitol Street home last Thursday afternoon; 8 minutes after dispatchers got the call.
“To tell you the truth,” says Zariah’s father, Philip Bolden, “I just wanted them to hurry.”
The two closest engine companies that day were not staffed with paramedics.
“It does raise an issue was to whether or not this is some kind of retaliation,” says Fox 5 News reporter Paul Wagner. He’s been reporting on the troubles within DC Fire and EMS for months now.
“This is something that is talked about constantly within the fire department,” Wagner says. “About the fact that there are so few paramedics in the city. And the lack of paramedics has everybody concerned that the EMS care is not up to the high quality that it should be in the city. And that’s the real concern here.”
All Botwin did was wonder aloud whether baby Zariah’s life could have been saved had the city staffed a paramedic closer to her home.
In a statement to Fox 5 News, DC Fire and EMS officials tell us they “have been contacted by the District’s privacy officer who has some very serious concerns about the letter.”
The email goes on to say “the department’s medical director has placed Firefighter Botwin on non-patient contact. He is not on administrative leave.
A paramedic who sent a letter earlier to the DC Council this week complaining that the agency is woefully understaffed has been taken off of street duty, says Ed Smith, the president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 36.
Smith says the medic, Jon Botwin, has been detailed to “day work,” meaning that he’ll be station-bound rather than riding out on emergency calls. A spokesman for the fire department says that Botwin is involved in an internal investigation, though he will not say if the letter plays a part in the inquiry. But Smith smells another conflict bubbling up between the department and its rank-and-file.
“A medic reached out doing a whistleblower act about the stress and burnout level firefighters and medics are facing, so the department pulls him off the street,” Smith tells Washingtonian.
“The thing that gets lost in people’s complaints or criticisms is that we are fully staffed with the number of FTEs that we’re actually allotted from a budget perspective,” says department spokesman Tim Wilson. “By and large, the complaints about staffing is an inaccurate complaint.”
As for the report of Botwin being removed from ambulance duty, though, Wilson declines to comment. “It’s a matter that’s being investigated internally and the department won’t issue a comment,” he says. “It may have to do with the letter.”
Here is the latest news coverage on the continuing problems within the DC Fire & EMS Department. In the video above, WTTG-TV/Fox 5 reporter Paul Wagner talks with DC Council member Tommy Wells about the letter from Firefighter/Paramedic Jon Botwin on the paramedic staffing shortages Botwin believes impacted care for a little girl who died.
The article below is about Chief Kenneth Ellerbe again making a change in leadership at apparatus maintenance. You may recall earlier this year Deputy Chief John Donnelly was brought in after Chief Ellerbe pushed out Deputy Chief Wayne Branch, blaming Branch for wrong information given to the City Council and a large amount of overtime being spent at the shop. Donnelly quickly became the face of the problems at the shop, talking with reporters as new problems were discovered. Donnelly has been transferred out of the shop and busted back to battalion chief.
According to Andrea Noble at The Washington Times, Donnelly’s problems are related to those street signs being used as heat shields to repair ambulances. The article says Donnelly failed to let Ellerbe know about the problem in a timely manner after Donnelly received an email from the firefighters’ union pointing out the issue. Here are some excerpts from Noble’s article:
“Every member of [the fire department] is held to a standard of performance, and those standards are universal,” Mr. Quander said in a statement. “When situations arise where those standards are not met, our staff is held accountable. And that happens whether they are rank and file or management.”
“How many times can they wash out a deputy chief at the apparatus division before the fire chief takes accountability?” union President Ed Smith said. “I don’t know what he’s being accused of to warrant the demotion, but as far as I know John Donnelly has had a spotless career.”
D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, who heads the committee that oversees the fire department, said he wouldn’t wade into personnel decisions made within the agency but praised Chief Donnelly’s handling of the massive four-alarm fire that destroyed Frager’s Hardware on Capitol Hill in June.
“I just really admired the way he managed the whole thing,” Mr. Wells said of Chief Donnelly, who served as acting chief in Chief Ellerbe’s absence.
(Note: Thanks to retired Deputy Chief Demetrios “Jim” Vlassopoulos for providing additional archival material for this story.)
Does this sound familiar? The fire department in the Nation’s Capital appearing on local TV news almost nightly. Ambulance delays related to the deaths of patients, equipment problems, serious morale issues and a controversial fire chief under attack. That was the scene a quarter-century-ago as the convention of the International Association of Fire Chiefs was headed to Washington, DC in August. The controversy in the department even extended to that convention with cries of racism after the picture of the host chief, T.R. Coleman, did not make the cover of Fire Chief Magazine, as had been the custom. Things were ugly.
But then something happened that, for a moment, lifted the department above the politics and the problems. The event put the focus where it belonged, on the men and women who every day fight the fires and save the lives.
It was exactly 25-years-ago this (Friday) morning that the late Channel 9 videographer Sheldon Levy, working his usual overnight shift, pulled up in front of 409 Missouri Avenue, NW as firefighters, EMTs and paramedics went to work at a row house fire. Sheldon’s remarkable video brought into the homes of the people in the Washington area a very different image of the DC Fire Department than they had been seeing in the previous weeks and months. The story of the Missouri Avenue fire was spread far and wide thanks to the TV show “Rescue 911″ which also used Sheldon’s video (see video below).
Four lifeless bodies were brought out of that house. Three children and an adult. Four people, all in arrest. As we know, the odds of survival in that situation are not good. But remarkably two of the children survived. One of them was Jackie Cutler, now Jackie Kotei.
Today, Channel 9 reporter Scott Broom talked with Jackie Kotei. They met at Jackie’s place of employment, the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services. It’s where Jackie helps get the message out about the work of the department and assists in spreading the word about fire safety.
I was the reporter for Channel 9 on that story in 1988. In 2008, aware the 20th anniversary was coming up, I tried to do what Scott Broom did today and track down the family. I called the house and talked with Jackie’s grandfather who has since passed away. He didn’t want to go on TV, but remembered talking with me in 1988 and suggested I call his daughter at work. I spoke with Jackie’s mom a few minutes later. She told me I really need to talk to her daughter Jackie who, at the time, was working as a TV reporter in Hagerstown, Maryland. For some reason Jackie and I never connected and I never did the anniversary story. But a funny thing happened about three years later.
I was leaving a planning committee meeting in Emmitsburg for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s Memorial Weekend, heading for my hotel in Gettysburg when my cell phone rang. The young women on the other end of the line said that she worked for Howard County and that Chief Bill Goddard suggested she call me for information about the streaming of the Memorial Weekend telecasts. Bill Goddard and I are old friends from PGFD and he had told me at the meeting a woman who worked for him might call. As the conversation about Memorial Weekend wrapped up the women said Chief Goddard thought that since I had worked in television in DC I might be able to help her with another matter. She was looking for video of a fire at her childhood home. My first thought was, what’s the likelihood of finding that?
As the conversation went on, the details started sounding familiar. I interrupted her at some point and asked, “Was this Missouri Avenue?” She responded, “Yes, are you familiar with the fire?” I have to admit it took me a moment to compose myself.
Jackie and I finally got to meet a few weeks after that conversation when she attended the 2011 Memorial Service in Emmitsburg with her mom. We now communicate pretty regularly on various projects. I’m so happy her story has finally been told.
And the story should be a reminder for all of us, that despite all the bad news we’ve been sharing with you about the DC Fire & EMS Department in recent months, there are still firefighters, EMTs and paramedics doing their jobs every day prepared to make sure another little girl like Jackie Cutler survives, even when the odds are very much against her
This morning, DC Mayor Vincent Gray, Deputy Mayor Paul Quander and Chief Kenneth Ellerbe held a press conference to announce 30 new ambulances will be on the streets by the end of the year, nine “single role” paramedics have been hired and 60 firefighters are joing the ranks of the department. In the video above WJLA-TV/ABC 7 reporter John Gonzalez reports that Chief Ellerbe’s portion of the press conference gave the impression this was a resignation speech but there is no indication that is the case.
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray again defended his embattled fire chief Tuesday telling reporters at an event showing off the city’s new ambulances the department is being “managed well”.
In fact the mayor is so confidant with the progress being made he will resubmit his ambulance redeployment plan to the city council. A plan unanimously voted down just a few weeks ago.
Mayor Gray and Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe told a gathering of recruits, reporters, city officials and command staff the fire department is no longer at a “tipping point” and has turned a corner in its plan to replace an aging fleet of vehicles and fill positions on a depleted staff of paramedics.
Gray and Ellerbe stood side by side outside a downtown firehouse and listed a number of accomplishments they feel will restore confidence in a fire department that has been badly bruised by a string of embarrassing incidents.
“Fire and EMS will receive 13 new ambulances from Horton Emergency Services by the end of the fiscal year or by September 30th”, said the mayor.
He also added 24 million dollars has been set aside to buy new trucks, engines and ambulances over the next three years.
The two also announced the hiring of nine new paramedics with Chief Ellerbe remarking on the difficulty in finding them.
“Paramedics are in high demand across the country”, said the chief, “and this is a job that requires a specific skill set, it’s not easy to come by, in fact the nine hires we have today came through a pool of one hundred and twenty five applicants, so it’s not easy to get through our process, it’s not easy to hire paramedics”.
As FOX 5 has reported for months, the department has been unable to keep up with the attrition and a number of ambulances and pumpers are routinely put in service without a required paramedic every single day.
Despite that, the mayor says he wants the council to consider his redeployment plan once again.
As the chief announced improved response times in the city he admitted his plan to train current firefighter/EMT’s as paramedics at Prince George’s Community College has fallen apart.
“That process did not work out”, said Ellerbe, “they offered us a contract that we could not agree to”.
As the news conference came to a close the chief told reporters he was hoping to patch up his relationship with the union.
“They were saying the equipment was old, we are bringing new equipment in, they said we didn’t have enough employees, we are hiring new employees, they already have the best equipment that money can buy”, Ellerbe said.
Union President Ed Smith, who attended the news conference, had this take on what he heard.
“First I want to say we are glad to see new hires and new units rolling in, it’s long overdue, does it rise to the occasion of news worthy? I don’t think so”, said Smith, “and the reason I say that is buying apparatus and hiring people should be part of everyday business”.
Tommy Wells, the chairman of the City Council’s Judiciary Committee says he’s glad the council finally got the mayors attention after raising crisis level concerns and he’s pleased to see a plan of action.
As for the mayor’s plan to resubmit the ambulance redeployment plan Wells says he’s hopeful it will not eliminate services during late night and early morning hours.
“We’re no longer at a tipping point,” Ellerbe said. “We’re now in a position to turn the corner.”
Gray also used the news conference to put to rest rumblings that he might abandon Ellerbe, who has been deeply criticized by the firefighters union and some D.C. Council members, saying the chief had no reason to fear for his job. ”I am really pleased with the progress he has made,” Gray said. “The department is being managed well.”
Local 36 President Ed Smith attended the more-than-hour-long news conference and afterward called it a “dog and pony show.” The new hires and new ambulances are “a good thing,” he said, but “this should have been what we’ve been doing the whole time.”
Nine new paramedics and 30 new ambulances will soon be on the streets in the District of Columbia, but the new hires and purchases won’t lead to any changes in a staffing and deployment strategy that critics have called inadequate for the nation’s capital.
Mayor Vincent Gray and Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe announced the hires and purchases at a news conference Tuesday. In addition to the paramedics, the department will bring on 60 new firefighters by year’s end from its recruit and cadet programs. Seventeen of the recruits are military veterans.
Ellerbe says the department has “turned the corner.”
The department has 35 paramedics working at any given time, 14 on ambulances. The new hires won’t change those numbers, but union leaders say ambulances will be downgraded less often.
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The department has struggled to provide timely emergency care. Dozens of paramedics have resigned in the past two years, and some ambulances have fallen into disrepair. The Associated Press reported that the department is trying to make do with less than half the paramedics employed by departments that respond to similar numbers of medical calls.
The nine new hires will be “single-role” paramedics, meaning they will ride on ambulances but not on fire engines, which are usually the first vehicles to respond to emergencies. Department officials have said many trained paramedics don’t want to fight fires.
Whatever ails the DC Fire & EMS Department, the Editorial Board of The Washington Post remains convinced it isn’t the fault of Kenneth Ellerbe. In fact, despite all of the recent headlines the Editorial Board continues to believe Chief Ellerbe is the man who has the plan for the future. This is consistent with the Post’s previous editorials on the subject. Here are excerpts from the editorial published yesterday:
Chief Ellerbe, we’ve noted before, has made some missteps, but he’s on exactly the right track in wanting to bring new accountability to a department mired in the practices and traditions of the past. Indeed, the problem with the department is not that there’s been too much change but that Chief Ellerbe has been hamstrung — by a restrictive union contract and intrusive council policies — from retooling it so that the needs of the public, rather than the wishes of the rank and file, are the main priority.
The main mission of the department is no longer simply fighting fires but also providing emergency medical services in a way that most efficiently serves the public. So while it may be in the interest of firefighters to have a schedule that requires just eight or nine workdays a month and allows them to have second jobs far from the District, that’s not in the best interests of the public that has to pick up the tab. And while it may to be to the advantage of the union that the department hire only paramedics who are firefighters, it makes sense for the city to meet its demand for paramedics by hiring people whose main role is to provide these critically needed emergency medical services.
Chief Ellerbe has dared to challenge the status quo on these and other issues, and that’s why he’s been made a target. If he were to be forced from office — an effort that troublingly is being enabled by some council members who should know better — prospects of reforming the department would be dealt a severe setback.
The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services, or DCFEMS, also has one of the most contentious relationships in the city, with both sides telling very different versions about why things seem to go wrong inside the agency.
So the News4 I-Team fought a legal battle for more than a year-and-a-half to get paperwork from the city, hoping to shed light on what’s really happening inside the city’s fire department.
We finally got the documents.
They show there are some serious problems inside DCFEMS, starting with the sheer number of unfilled positions.
According to the union, known as the DC Firefighters Association Local 36, it takes 360 people to fully staff all positions on any given day. The union claims there are as many as 250 unfilled positions.
“My gut reaction is we don’t have enough,” says Smith. “Way behind.”
Why is that important? DCFEMS says one out of every five calls requires a paramedic. Smith says only paramedics can intubate a patient, administer life-saving drugs and use complex defibrillators. Everyone else is an EMT who can provide “Basic Life Support” like CPR.
He says there are now so many unfilled paramedic jobs, the ones who do show up to work are being forced to work 12-hour mandatory overtime shifts after they’ve finished their regular 24 hour shift. (See how much DCFEMS employees make.)
When we visited his office in Northeast, Smith pointed to a graphic the union has created of every paramedic unit each day. When you look at July 2011, you can see a smattering of yellow boxes designating the unit on a specific day has been downgraded.
“It wasn’t a medic unit, it was a regular ambulance,” Smith explains.
Then he flips through July 2012. Many more yellow boxes.
By July 2013, the yellow boxes dominate the screen.
Smith randomly points to July 8 of this year and starts counting the number of units downgraded during that day’s AM shift. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11” he counts out loud and he points to yellow boxes. “Eleven out of the 14 supposed Medic units are supposed to be staffed. Three of them were in. The picture tells the whole story.”
Not quite, says Chief Ellerbe.
“People have to come to work,” he says. “That’ll keep those boxes from turning yellow.”
Chief Ellerbe says employees only work 96 days out of the year.
Chief Ellerbe says, “People have to come to work. We expect folks to come to work whether it’s a holiday or not and that’s just the bottom line. This job requires sacrifice and we know that coming in. The pay is good, the benefits are good and we expect folks to respect the fact they have a job to do.”
Even Chief Ellerbe says it is time for a pay raise, especially for paramedics who are in such high demand throughout the country. But, he says it’s been difficult getting anyone to even apply because of an old DC law that also required paramedics to be firefighters.
“A lot of employees who want to be EMS providers don’t want to be firefighters,” he says.
Chief Ellerbe says in April, he convinced the DC government to create a variance that would allow him to hire people only as paramedics. Suddenly, he says, the applications started flooding in.
“We’re not running from this stuff. We know we can make things better.”
A D.C. firefighter filed a police complaint accusing Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe of assault, pointing to an encounter last week when the chief showed up on the scene of an ambulance fire and grabbed the man’s cell phone from his hand.
The report, made available Wednesday, states “the suspect grabbed and removed a cellular telephone” from the 33-year-old firefighter’s hand, causing injury to his right wrist. Chief Ellerbe is not named in the report but a police spokeswoman provided the report number when asked about a complaint involving the fire chief and D.C. officials have confirmed the investigation.
The report centers on an Aug. 13 encounter in which an ambulance caught fire in Southeast D.C. while responding to a medical call. Photos and videos taken at the scene, which captured the department’s embarrassing moment, were widely distributed through social media that day.
Ellerbe, himself, acknowledged in an interview Tuesday that he approached the firefighter and inquired about his phone and photos taken at the scene of the Aug. 13 fire in the 4700 block of Benning Road SE.
Ellerbe, however, denied a physical confrontation and said he asked the firefighter for his smartphone, which he said the firefighter voluntarily handed over. The chief said he looked at the phone and gave it back. Ellerbe had seen a picture of the flaming ambulance posted on the firefighters union Twitter account 23 minutes after the first fire engine arrived.
Neither Ellerbe nor a fire department spokesman responded to requests for comment Wednesday morning.
“His job is safe,” Ellerbe told News4 Wednesday. “I can tell you that I didn’t snatch the phone from him. I asked him if he had [a cell phone], asked if I could see it, he gave it to me, and that was the end of it as far as I was concerned.”
Representatives with the D.C. Firefighters Association said they were not involved in the filing of the complaint.
“It’s definitely something that we want to see investigated,” union official Dabney Morgan said. “If there was something egregious there, we hope appropriate actions are taken.”
With all of the turmoil in the DC Fire & EMS Department right now these pictures sure grabbed my attention after being alerted of their existance on Facebook by my old friend Max Cacas. They were taken by Jim Grimaldi and have been reprinted here with Jim’s permission.
Was this an exclusive look at a new seal/logo and color scheme change for the department? The last one sure caused quite the controversy.
After being told where these were shot, it caused me even more confusion for a second and then it dawned on me what this was likely about.
Jim took them in front of City Hall in Los Angeles, California. That clue eventually provided the answer. This was something made up for a movie or TV show.
Jim confirms these were part of a shoot for the television show “Scandal”. The scene also involved other emergency vehicles and a sign showing the Judiciary Square Metro stop.
The Washingtonian’s Harry Jaffe reports there was an incident involving Chief Kenneth Ellerbe at the scene of the first of two ambulance fires in DC last Tuesday. It involved the smartphone of an on-duty firefighter who was at the scene and the chief’s concern about the pictures of the burning ambulance already on the Internet.
“The fire chief accused him of taking pictures and snatched the phone out of his hand,” says Ed Smith, president of the DC Firefighters Association. “He gave it right back to him.”
The firefighter, who has not come forward, felt ill and went to the police and fire clinic for assistance. He filed a report, naming the chief and describing his actions. After the indent, the firefighter went on sick leave for stress. He declined to be interviewed.
“He’s having a hard time,” Smith says. “He’s scared, he’s nervous. He’s still deciding what to do.”
Ellerbe’s encounter with the firefighter over the ambulance fire fits the union’s narrative of a boss who’s out of touch with his troops.
“Instead of worrying about the safety of his people,” Ed Smith tells Washingtonian, “he confronted his people.”
Smith says he advised the firefighter to file a complaint with the department’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office.
The Washington Post’s Peter Hermann and Amy Brittain are reporting the initial investigations by DC fire investigators into the two amulance fires last Tuesday found the fires were probably cause by “malfunctions or by shoddy repair attempts”. The reporter say they are basing this on internal incident reports the Post obtained. The reporters indicate the findings were available before Deputy Mayor Paul Quander ordered police involved in the investigation by activating the Arson Task Force and ordering the department’s own investigators to recuse themselves from the task force investigation.
District officials said the conclusions by fire investigators do not represent the final results of a criminal probe that police expect will take some time. They also said the findings do not preclude the possibility of tampering intended to make the fires appear accidental.
“I think it was irresponsible for the deputy mayor to make those allegations,” (Local 36 president Ed) Smith said. “I think the city needs to issue us a formal apology. I’m confident there was nothing done that was untoward.”
Keith St. Clair, a spokesman for Paul A. Quander Jr., the deputy mayor for public safety, said concerns remain about two fires having occurred in ambulances on opposite sides of the city on the same day. Quander, St. Clair said, “wants to know what the facts are” and wants a more thorough investigation than was done initially.
“We’re hoping this investigation shows that these fires were accidental,” St. Clair said.
The report says the fire started near the air conditioner, and it concludes that the fire was an accident. But the investigator also wrote that he was “unable to identify the specific component failure that led to this fire.”
In a report on the second fire that day, which occurred outside MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Northwest, the investigator wrote that he found a plastic container of transmission fluid stored in the engine compartment.
I admit I can’t keep up. I’m at FRI in Chicago trying to figure out everything that is going on with the DC Fire & EMS Department and there are just too many stories and not enough time. There were people here eager to get the scoop directly from Chief Kenneth Ellerbe, who was scheduled to give a class on Thursday called “Fire Proofing the Fire Chief”. I’m told by a number of people the chief was a no-show.
Now let’s forget all that serious stuff for a moment and pay attention to the sideshow that The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis has chronicled. DeBonis confirmed former Chief Dennis Rubin’s claim earlier this week that Kenneth Ellerbe, while still in Florida, texted a message that he wanted Rubin’s job and his “head on a stick”.
As for The Rube, he broke this story and provided details of his battles with Ellerbe in an article called “Saying Goodbye: The Hostile takover” for FireEngineering.com on Wednesday. In the column, Rubin used that same silly technique he used in his book “DC Fire” of describing very clearly the people he sees as his enemies but omitting their names. In Wednesday’s column, Rubin never named Ellerbe or even mentioned the whole article was about his exit as chief in the District of Columbia. What’s that all about? I just don’t get it. It isn’t like we didn’t know. But the skillful Mike DeBonis was able to pry the name “Ellerbe” from Rubin’s lips. Still that’s not the best part.
In an even stranger turn of events, Debonis was able to get backing for Rubin’s claim of the “head on a stick” text from none other than Firefighter Chris “HOOKMAN” Sullivan. Sullivan originally got that message from Ellerbe and later posted it on The Watch Desk. What is so strange is that The Rube and The HOOKMAN are mortal enemies. The Rube fired the Hookman (Sullivan later got his job back). It’s like Lex Luthor vouching for Superman. And on top of it, through a spokesman, Ellerbe admits he wrote the “head on a stick” message.
“It’s truly disgusting, most importantly, to watch the public’s trust to erode,” Rubin said in the interview.
Rubin said he was compelled to speak out after being repeatedly denigrated by Ellerbe and other city officials as fire department woes mounted. “It’s a string of never-ending direct and indirect comments,” he said.
In March 2012, WRC-TV reported on hundreds of fire-resistant polo shirts that were sitting unused in a warehouse. Ellerbe attributed the issue, in part, to “trickery in terms of one administration to another.” More recently, a department statement issued for a WUSA-TV report said the department’s efforts had gone “far beyond what Dennis Rubin did” as chief.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a longtime critic of department management, questioned Rubin’s credibility in critiquing department matters.
“I don’t think he’s the best commentator given the state of the department when he left,” said Mendelson, who clashed with Rubin during his time as chairman of the council’s public safety committee.
Tensions between District leaders and the local firefighters union have reached an all-time high.
Each side is now asking outside agencies to investigate the two ambulance fires that took place yesterday.
By asking the police department to investigate an issue at the fire department, the Deputy Mayor is insinuating that he suspects either foul play or sabotage.
He never specifically said either of those words today but he came pretty close.
The Deputy Mayor for Public Safety, Paul Quander said, “I asked for MPD to take the lead…to see if there was anything improper anything untowards that was taking place.”
Those words – the implications of sabotage – have really rubbed the rank-and-file D.C. firefighters the wrong way.
As Ed Smith, head of the local firefighter’s union says, “I think it’s slanderous. I believe in the firefighters that serve this city 1000%.”
It’s not just the firefighters that are upset.
It’s several city council members, including the chairman of the Committee on Public Safety, Tommy Wells.
“I think that’s a very serious, veiled allegation,” said Wells.
But Deputy Mayor, Paul Quander says his reason for an MPD investigation is simple.
“How many instances are you aware of where two fire engines or two fire apparatuses have caught fire on the same day within a three hour period? Any? Next question.”
The fire fighters union is asking the NTSB to investigate the entire ambulance fleet. Why? Two engine fires in one day. The ambulance assigned to the presidential motorcade running out of fuel and then there’s this picture of a street sign reportedly being used to fix the engine of a D.C. ambulance.
“It was cut and put in there as a makeshift heat shield to try to keep the unit running longer and it’s an older unit. But that’s just one example of what the firefighters are doing and dealing with on a daily basis to try to get out there and respond to these emergencies and the shoddy repairs that are being done only to be turned around and laid on our feet, the blame,” said Smith.
The investigations into both ambulance fires are still ongoing.
But in the meantime, Councilmember Wells wants Mayor Gray to come forward and take the lead on this crisis. He says this is a crisis of leadership, not a crisis of funding.