Some D.C. firefighters have been using their own money to buy auto parts and perform minor repairs on their vehicles themselves at their stations to avoid lengthy delays and shoddy workmanship at the fire department’s garage, five department sources have told The Washington Times.
The station repairs violate D.C. Fire and EMS Department policy, and the firefighters could face disciplinary action for their maintenance efforts.
But they say the alternative is to continue driving malfunctioning trucks and engines. Or to be assigned a faulty reserve vehicle while they wait days for repairs, only to find that their own vehicles have been improperly serviced when they return from the fleet maintenance facility.
The Times found that firefighters have been making their own repairs after reporting earlier this month that the fire department has lagged in purchasing new vehicles and has allowed repair orders to pile up at the fleet maintenance facility in Southwest.
What’s more, only two of the facility’s 23 mechanics have completed training for their Emergency Vehicle Technician Certification, according to a FEMS spokesman.
The fire department’s facility is crowded, with vehicles in need of repair filling its parking lot and lining the street.
“‘Nuisance’ repairs get no love, so we take care of it ourselves,” said one firefighter with Engine 13 who asked that his name not be used for fear of financial reprisals.
The firefighter, an 18-year FEMS veteran, told The Times that the fleet maintenance facility has failed to respond to several requests to fix broken parts on his engine — such as a seat belt that’s been broken for three months, and a passenger seat that’s been missing bolts for the last three years and flies off its base whenever the driver brakes suddenly.
He said he went to Home Depot on Saturday to buy bolts to screw the seat down himself.
Another firefighter with more than 10 years’ experience said he and his crew have fixed a broken seat in their ladder truck, and buy lights for the truck from Home Depot.
He said his team also has bought paint to mark guidelines on the station floor to help drivers back in their vehicles.
The Times requested receipts and invoices from the firefighters to prove their repair purchases. They said they didn’t keep any because the purchases were made some time ago, or other members of their crew had the receipts but didn’t want to talk to the media.
None of the firefighters submitted receipts for reimbursement from the department, as their maintenance work violates FEMS policy. According to Chapter 20, Section 24 of the department’s Order Book “no employee of the Department will attempt any repairs thereto without authority of the Deputy Chief of Apparatus Division.” The Times obtained a copy of the policy.
However, the position of “deputy chief of apparatus” was abolished more than four years ago by former Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe, said Dabney Hudson, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association IAFF Local No. 36.
“The department has a responsibility to provide and maintain the vehicles they provide,” Mr. Hudson said. “If they are unable to do that, it is time to hold the managers responsible for our fleet accountable and find competent replacements.”
A spokesman for council member Charles Allen, Ward 6 Democrat and chairman of the Safety Committee, said lawmakers “have been looking at issues around our FEMS apparatus, including finding ways to build a new maintenance facility sooner. A performance oversight hearing that will certainly dive into these issues will take place in mid-February if not sooner.”
“I think we do need a hearing on this,” said council member Mary Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat and Safety Committee member. “I don’t think we can wait for the spring oversight hearings.”
FEMS spokesman Doug Buchanan gave a written response to inquiries by The Times: “District residents should have confidence that their first responders are well-trained and well-resourced to do their daily heroic work of saving lives and property. The truth is, the Bowser administration has made it an ongoing priority to ensure that the DC Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department has the resources necessary to maintain its fleet and manage the demands of an urban emergency response program.
“It is the Department’s policy that our vehicles get repaired at the apparatus division. We never want our employees to pay for repairs themselves. Our responsibility is to repair these vehicles and keep them safe. If they are not safe we will take vehicles out of service, and service and repair them. We encourage any of our dedicated members to report any repair work promptly so that we can properly address those needs.”
Firefighters said they themselves, not mechanics, work overtime in the maintenance shop to repair tools such as saws and generators. Long wait times can occur if not enough firefighters are authorized for overtime, they said.
When the gas-powered saw on his company’s truck recently broke down, one firefighter said his crew watched how-to videos on YouTube to fix it themselves.
“For 24 hours that ladder truck is mine,” he said. “And I’ll do what I can to make it right.”
The firefighters who spoke with The Times stressed that they take apparatus to the shop for repairs like soft brakes and engine failures. But the shop’s long wait times and poor quality repairs have taken their vehicles out of service for days.
In addition, reserve vehicles can be unreliable. The Times reported last week that a firefighter broke his leg during a training exercise when he was thrown off a reserve truck ladder that moved suddenly due to a broken securing mechanism.
A firefighter who had used that 20-year-old truck ladder over the years told The Times the buttons controlling the ladder’s mechanism had been broken “for years.”
A senior FEMS official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the department’s budget for fleet maintenance is “way underfunded” and that it’s common knowledge that firefighters are fixing what they can on their own.
“They even buy their own cleaning supplies for the station from their own money,” the senior official said.
Firefighters said they also pay for supplies such as motor oil, windshield wiper fluid, glass cleaner, garden hoses and shop vacuums. They said they pool their cash for expensive purchases, and raise money from their neighborhoods via events such as T-shirt sales to help cover their costs.
The firefighter with Engine 13 said FEMS crews are “frustrated” with the department’s failure to maintain their apparatus and their stations, but that there’s camaraderie in crews trying to fix problems together.
“It shows we’ll do anything to solve a problem,” the firefighter said. “If nobody else will, we’ll take care of it.”