More than a decade after 9/11, is the District of Columbia prepared to handle the aftermath of a terrorist attack similar to the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon? The answer to this simple question is of grave concern not only to District residents but to anybody who visits or works in the nation's capital. But judging by recent events and the conflicting comments of city officials, that answer is no.
As Washington Examiner reporter Alan Blinder reported Monday, Mayor Vincent Gray admitted in a letter to Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chairman Tommy Wells that it would be "almost impossible for many off-duty [D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services] workers, who would be desperately needed, to respond in a timely manner to meet the needs of our residents."
It was an extraordinary moment of mayoral candor, given the fact that officials in Gray's own administration had already reassured the council that D.C. was ready for any emergency.
The political backdrop for this unsettling controversy is an ongoing contract dispute between D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe, a childhood friend of Gray's, and the firefighters union, now heading into binding arbitration after five years of failed negotiations and mediation.
Ellerbe wants to shorten firefighters' traditional 24-hour around-the-clock shifts, claiming that doing so will make it easier for the city to cover emergencies. The union wants to retain the current arrangement, particularly since 28 percent of uniformed FEMS employees live more than 30 miles from the city and six live 200 miles one way, a commute made possible only because they only have to make it once every four days.
But the squabble over shifts does not explain why a report by Inspector General Charles Willoughby warned that FEMS does not have sufficient rescue equipment to respond to "large-scale emergencies or mass casualty events."As the City Paper reported, even Tower 3 -- the apparatus assigned to rescue the president if the White House were ever to catch fire -- has been out of service more than any other city-owned vehicle. And since 2009, none of the city's ladder trucks has been subjected to what should be annual stress tests, because FEMS' reserve fleet does not have working replacements.
First responders who live hundreds of miles away, ambulances that arrive too late or not at all, broken down fire trucks and rescue equipment. Mayor Gray is right: D.C. is not ready for a Boston-style attack. But whose fault is that?