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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been fighting and winning freedom of speech cases involving DC firefighters since the 1970s. Chief Kenneth Ellerbe is just the latest in a long line of chiefs who have gotten the attention of the ACLU after Firefighter/Paramedic Jon Botwin was placed on desk duty over a letter he wrote to the City Council.
The paramedic who wrote a letter to the D.C. City Council warning of a “dire situation” in the District has now been off the street for a week–sitting in an office doing nothing.
Jon has not been questioned or even told what charges he might be facing–circumstances the American Civil Liberties Union sees as nothing short of retaliation.
On Thursday the ACLU sent a letter to Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe asking for an explanation and pointing out the paramedic had a clear right to communicate his concerns to the council under the whistle blower protection act and the first amendment.
The fire department says it placed Botwin on “administrative duties” after “very serious concerns” were raised about the information he disclosed. A claim the ACLU says the facts do not support.
When Jon Botwin sat down to write the city council and tell the members about his efforts to save the life of a little girl he did not include any identifying information.
Despite that, D.C. Fire and EMS put out a news release saying the privacy officer had concerns HIPAA rules had been violated and Botwin was ordered off his engine and told to report to headquarters.
Art Spitzer with the ACLU has read Botwin’s letter and sees no violation at all.
“All he said was a five month old baby had died, I can’t see how that possibly violates patient privacy”, said Spitzer in an interview Thursday.
In his letter to the chief, Spitzer also wonders why the investigation has even gone on this long.
“This is a classic case in the D.C. Fire Department, I have been litigating cases against the D.C. Fire Department since 1980 and I have seen this kind of thing repeatedly where the Fire Chief wants to let people know who’s the boss around here,” said Spitzer.
As FOX 5 has reported, Botwin’s letter also pointed out less than half the paramedic positions were staffed the day the little girl went into cardiac arrest. Including the two units stationed closest to the girls apartment.
Botwin also told the council citizens are in danger, the remaining paramedics are burning out and it’s only getting worse.
He spoke out on the FOX 5 ten o’clock news last Friday.
“If you call 911 and you want or need an ALS provider the question is do you want it coming from over here, farther away or the one that is supposed to be there and if people knew how many times that the city is left with less than half the number of paramedics, less than half the paramedics we are supposed to have, even though that number doesn’t come close to what similar cities with similar size have, it’s ridiculous, people’s lives are hurting every single day, you just don’t hear about it or it isn’t your family yet,” Botwin said in a live interview with Anchor Maureen Umeh.
Jon Botwin is not the first firefighter to be taken off the street for speaking out.
Robert Alvarado was demoted after he gave an interview to FOX 5 and union president Ed Smith was transferred after he was critical of the chief.
In a request for comment, D.C. Fire and EMS released this statement.
“The Department has received a letter of inquiry from the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital regarding the detail of Paramedic Jon Botwin.
The Department will not provide comment or respond to any inquiries until the investigation is complete.”