The D.C. Fire Department found itself in a crisis situation New Year’s Eve when more than a 100 firefighters called in sick. At least 11 ambulances went unstaffed and supervisors were forced to ask for help from Prince George’s County.
One man died waiting for an ambulance and a stabbing victim was transported to the hospital in a fire truck.
The Firefighter’s union denies it was behind a coordinated sick out and says the trouble New Year’s Eve could have been avoided if the department had staffed up as it did in recent years.
Ed Smith, the head of the union, says the department is choosing cost cutting over public safety.
That’s a claim the chief denies.
If you called for an ambulance in the District of Columbia New Year’s Eve you were likely left waiting for quite some time.
Multiple sources with internal department documents to back it up say ambulance crews were in constant motion crisscrossing the city trying to keep up with the demand.
On Lang Place Northeast, Fire Engine 30 transported a stabbing victim to the hospital because an ambulance wasn’t available. It’s highly unusual for a patient to be transported on a fire truck.
At a home on 44th Place Southeast it took 40 minutes for an ambulance to arrive from Prince George’s County for a man in cardiac arrest.
A relative says the man later died.
Chief Kenneth Ellerbe declined to point any fingers over the large number of firefighters calling out sick but admitted it was highly unusual.
“Today we have 26 people out sick” said Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe, “but it could be members waited because they have an option to use sick leave three times a year without going to the clinic, it’s called our minor illness program, New Year’s Eve, it could be our members wanted to be off or they were sick.”
Chief Ellerbe described the man power shortage as a challenge rather than a crisis and says he attempted to find replacements.
He asked the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety to waive the cap on overtime that prevents some firefighters from working extra hours.
“My understanding is he talked to the mayor and (City Council Chairman) Phil Mendelson” said Chief Ellerbe, “and there was an agreement that if we relaxed the cap we would do it for just this instance but as it turned out only two members took advantage of it so it doesn’t make sense for us to talk about those kind of things as opposed to just working together to make sure these things don’t happen again.”
Chief Ellerbe says when the department went looking for extra help New Year’s Eve 48 out of 50 fire fighters turned the department down.
It’s no secret the firefighters union and the Fire Chief have been at odds.
It was just about a year ago a room full of firefighters turned their backs on the Chief and walked out of a state of the department speech he had just given.
In 2010 the District put a law into place limiting the number of overtime hours a firefighter can work.
A law the firefighters union would like to see abolished.
The union says firefighters who want to work are prevented from doing so because of the law.
Stabbing victim transported in DC fire truck New Year’s Eve. Ambulances & medic units not staffed. Lack of planning & high sick leave use cited.97 comments
DC lieutenant’s lawsuit against TV station tossed out by judge under new anti-SLAPP law. Dave thinks this was a case of poor journalism.11 comments
When I first saw the story above a little more than a year ago, I thought it was unfair to the firefighter who was featured, and missed the real story by failing to track down the people who should be answering the questions. In general, I thought it was a poor job done by the reporter on what was and is a legitimate story.
The person featured in the story is DC Fire & EMS Department Lieutenant Richard Lehan. The report focused on Lt. Lehan's income from the District of Columbia. He was the fire department's top money maker in the overtime category. Similar stories have been done in many cities.
Lehan's feelings about the report were obviously a lot stronger than mine. He filed a defamation lawsuit against WTTG-TV. DC Superior Court Judge Rufus G. King III has now dismissed that suit based on the District of Columbia's new anti-SLAPP law.
SLAPP stands for "strategic lawsuits against public participation". Wikipedia has one of the clearest explanations of a SLAPP I could find:
A lawsuit that is intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition.
Anti-SLAPP laws are generally intended to protect a citizen's right of free speech and, as in this case, have also been used by the news media to do the same.
Richard Lehan's lawsuit is the first dismissal under DC's law.
Drew E. Shenkman and Charles D. Tobin, with Holland and Knight LLP, have written an article about this case. I have forwarded it to FireLawBlog.com's Curt Varone to see if I can encourage him to translate it into English from legalese in one of his columns. Actually it is not that bad, but Curt, a lawyer and firefighter, will do a better job explaining what this all really means. In the meantime here's an excerpt from the article:
In June 2011, Lehan sued for defamation and defamation per se. He alleged that the station's figures were inaccurate and that the report's use of phrases like "racked up" and "month-after-month" were defamatory. He also alleged that the report that he and his brother controlled the assignment of overtime was false.
The station filed a special motion to dismiss under the District's anti-SLAPP statute, D.C. Code §16-5501, et seq., enacted in March 2011. D.C. is the 29th jurisdiction with a law permitting early challenges to SLAPP lawsuits. Under the D.C. statute, if a defendant establishes the lawsuit arose out of "acts in furtherance of the right of advocacy on issues of public interest," the burden shifts to the plaintiff to demonstrate a "likelihood of success" on the merits. If the plaintiff fails, the statute requires the court to dismiss the lawsuit and the judge may award reasonable attorneys' fees.
Now, my complaints about this story have nothing to do with defamation, though I thought there was a fair amount of innuendo with no smoking gun to back it up. If I had been doing the story, I'm sure I too would have featured Lt. Lehan, the top overtime earner. That's a fact important to the story, especially since his later earnings appeared to violate a DC law limiting the amount of overtime a firefighter or police officer can make.
But since there was no indication in reporter Roby Chavez's story (Chavez is no longer with the station) that Lt Lehan was putting in for overtime he didn't earn, my questions would have been directed elsewhere. Instead of spending a lot of time staking out the quarters of Engine 30 trying to get Lt. Lehan to talk, I would have been tracking down, and if necessary staking out, former Chief Dennis Rubin and his assistant chiefs who were ultimately responsible for how the overtime money was spent. They are the people who should have been answering the questions from the reporter and those raised by the council member interviewed in the report.
It isn't just DC. I have brought this same point up many times before elsewhere in the country. If the firefighter or other public servant is legitimately being paid for hours worked, the focus should not be on the person receiving the fat paycheck, but rather the person writing it.
Obviously Judge King has judged that this TV news story was not defamation. That's out of my expertise (though, when I first heard about the lawsuit from a friend, I expressed doubts about its success). I will, however, judge that it was a poor and misguided journalistic effort.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I have known Lt. Lehan and his brother Ed (also mentioned in the report) for a long time. I like both of them and they both have been kind to me through the years. That said, to my knowledge, I have never talked to either one of them about the story or the lawsuit, and am basing my opinion solely on my experience as a TV reporter who covered the fire service.
In addition, I have some very good friends (or at least did) at WTTG-TV. The station has some wonderful TV journalists on its staff. My comments focus solely on this one story and do not reflect on the news operation as a whole.
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