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D.C. firetruck shortage connected to woman’s death

December 6, 2018

A 96-year-old woman died after a fire consumed her house in Shaw late Tuesday as her neighborhood’s assigned firetruck was covering Southeast amid a shortage of reserve emergency vehicles.

“It’s alarming to hear a citizen has died because of a lack of coverage,” a senior official in the D.C. Fire and EMS Department familiar with safety oversight told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity. “The fire department is continuing to play Russian roulette not only with civilian lives but also with firefighters’ lives.”

The fire burned the back porch of the row house on the 1800 block of North Capitol Street NW, then spread to the first floor. Firefighters from Rescue Squad 1 went in to rescue a woman they heard was trapped inside, according to a copy of that evening’s shift report obtained by The Washington Times.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has not released the identity of the 96-year-old woman or the cause of her death. But WRC-TV identified the woman as Annie Maiden.

Two other occupants of the row house were uninjured but were reportedly displaced by the fire. Fire investigators determined the fire to be a cooking accident that caused roughly $50,000 in damage.

Ladder Truck 4 is assigned to the Shaw neighborhood and usually is stationed less than a mile away from where Tuesday’s fire erupted, at the firehouse at 1300 New Jersey Ave. NW.

But Truck 4 was in Southeast on Tuesday night, as part of a rotation of apparatus covering for Truck 17 at the Benning Road station, where Truck 17 has been out of service for a month, according to a fire department spokesman.

Ladder Truck 15 answered Tuesday night’s call from its station at 1340 Rhode Island Ave. NW, which is roughly a mile farther from the scene than Truck 4′s station. It arrived on the scene four minutes after receiving the call.

Truck 15′s response time is just over the 3 minute and 55-second average that spokesman Doug Buchanan said is typical of the department, but within the standards set by The National Firefighters Protection Association (NFPA).

“It doesn’t sound like much,” Dabney Hudson, president at D.C. Firefighters Association IAFF Local No. 36, said of the one-mile difference between Truck 4 and Truck 15′s stations. “But in the cities, it can be minutes.”

A senior firefighter who works with Truck 4 and has two decades of experience told The Times that he’s “100 percent” confident his crew would have arrived sooner than 4 minutes. He requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Fire Chief Dean offered condolences to the victim’s family in a statement Wednesday and noted the response time was within standards.

“Any vague suggestions of something other is a total disservice to a family that lost a loved one and the rest of our residents we serve daily,” Chief Dean said.

Two ladder trucks are required to respond to fires in case firefighters themselves need rescuing. The second truck to respond Tuesday was Truck 9, which came from the station at U and Ninth streets NW because Truck 15 was supposed to be the second support truck on the scene, according to a department spokesman.

Truck 9 arrived five minutes after the call, leaving Truck 15′s crew unprotected for one minute.

“We’re just holding it together and hoping nobody dies,” Lt. Robert “Cadillac” Alvarado, an 18-year department veteran who serves in Eastern Market, said of the system of shuffling trucks to fill coverage gaps.

The Times previously has reported that the department’s reserve fleet is depleted due to having too few vehicles and slow maintenance at the department’s shop.

The firefighter with Truck 4 said “we’re robbing Peter to pay Paul” by moving vehicles to different stations to cover for out-of-service apparatus. He said his crew is “frustrated” by having to listen to reports of fires in their neighborhood unable to help.

Tuesday is the second time Truck 4 has “missed” a fire in its neighborhood while covering for Truck 17. On Nov. 25, Truck 4 was stationed in Southeast while a three-story apartment building at 1410 11th St. NW burned.

Meanwhile, Truck 17 has been out of service since Nov. 11, when a lack of safety protections allowed its ladder to jerk during a training exercise throwing off a firefighter who fell 30 feet and broke his leg.

The 20-year-old vehicle is one of the department’s oldest, and is a reserve filling in for the “original” Truck 17, which has been out for electrical repairs since July 2016.

“We always say a fatal fire may wake them up,” the firefighter with Truck 4 said Wednesday. “But it’s deflect, deny, and they keep it up. We’re going to continue to come to work and be dedicated and do what we always do. I don’t have the answers.”

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