One week after D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray told lawmakers that the scheduling policies of the DC Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department could make it difficult for "desperately needed" rescue workers to get into the District during a catastrophe, city officials scrambled Monday to reassure the public that the city is prepared.
"I have no doubt in my mind that we can respond," Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul Quander told The Washington Examiner. "Would we better able if more of our firefighters lived closer to the District of Columbia? Yes."
Quander defended the city's preparedness level hours after The Examiner detailed an April 22 letter Gray sent legislators outlining his concerns about guidelines that have firefighters work 24-hour shifts followed by three days off.
"The existing shift structure permits many personnel to commute extraordinary distances to report for work," Gray wrote. "Should a serious emergency situation impact the District of Columbia, as it did [on April 15] in Boston, it would be almost impossible for many off-duty FEMS workers, who would be desperately needed, to respond in a timely manner to meet the needs of our residents."
The administration wants to change the system to 12-hour rotations, which would likely force workers to reside closer to the District. Records show 28 percent of the District's uniformed FEMS employees live 30 miles or more from D.C.
Mayoral spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said that Gray had been trying to illustrate the need for significant changes in the scheduling of emergency personnel and did not intend to heighten worries about the fire department, which has been the subject of recent scrutiny for equipment problems and response times.
"We're not raising an alarm," Ribeiro said. "We're just saying that we'd be better prepared."
But Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells, chairman of the council's public safety committee, said the letter distressed him.
"It got my attention, and I took it as being put on notice that the mayor was concerned," Wells said. "I took it as ringing an alarm bell."
The firefighters union also took fresh aim at Gray over the letter, which the union president said was a brazen attempt to link professional competency to residency.
"It's offensive," Edward Smith said. "The last time I checked the Roll of Honor for firefighters who have given their lives in the line of the duty, there isn't a ZIP code listed on that."
Ribeiro said Gray has "enormous respect" for firefighters.