The operator calls the nearest fire department. The firetruck arrives before the cops. The shooter might still be around when they jump out.
"Happens all the time," says a firefighter with 25 years in the department. "Risky business."
Or you fall out of bed in the middle of the night and bonk your head on the night table. And you can't get up. Who you gonna call? The fire department.
Or you look out the window and see flames shooting from your neighbor's house. You call the fire department.
Gas leaking down the gutter from a hole in your friend's gas tank? Fire department shows up to clean the mess. They call it hazmat.
Point is, D.C. firemen do a lot of things, in addition to dousing fires and rescuing people from burning buildings. But in their souls, they are firefighters, carrying on a long tradition of men and women who have gone under the banner DCFD for 140 years. Which is why most firefighters are furious that D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Chief Ken Ellerbe has summarily banned his troops from wearing anything that says DCFD on the job.
From now on, Ellerbe's edict said, his men and women will have to wear uniforms and T-shirts and hats that read FEMS, for Fire and Emergency Medical Service. Let's leave aside the hundreds of dollars each firefighter and paramedic will have to shell out for new gear. Ellerbe's decision sent a message to his people:
"I don't give a rat's a-- what you think," says another fireman who works out of a platoon in Anacostia. "Ken's losing the hearts and minds of his people. He's trying to change the culture of the fire department. It is what it is."
Ellerbe's order, he explained, emanated from a bureaucratic impulse to merge the fire department with the emergency medical services. By changing the name, he and other bureaucrats reasoned, firefighters would embrace their new roles of responding to medical emergencies.
But bureaucrats have no clue about what it means to respond to fires and shootings and fumes that might kill you. Like Marines or Navy Seals or D.C. cops, firefighters put themselves in harm's way; they are woven into a chain of command and a culture where what you wear matters. It's part of the esprit de corps. After the 9/11 attacks, could you see people wearing a NYFEMS hat?
The fact is that our firefighters have adapted to their new roles. They are trained to respond to calls for medical emergencies. They show up and perform well.
Everyone knows they are firemen. They should be able to wear DCFD, if they want. They have earned that right.
Harry Jaffe's column appears on Tuesday and Friday. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.