I get the latest outrage in DC — but the misplaced focus won’t improve EMS

If you read the investigative report about the actions of Lt. Guy Valentine on the day a young child died near the Northwest Washington, DC firehouse where Valentine was assigned, it’s easy to understand why a disciplinary hearing was in the lieutenant’s future. You can also understand why Lt. Valentine put in his retirement papers. And it also makes sense that the child’s family is extremely upset the DC Fire & EMS Department dropped the ball when they failed to come up with rules ordered by the DC City Council that might have prevented Lt. Valentine from avoiding discipline by retiring. All of this is well covered in the story below by reporter Paul Wagner.

But here is what I don’t understand now, didn’t understand when the incident occurred last March and didn’t understand after the fire department internal report on the incident was released in July: Why is Lt. Valentine the lone fall guy when there is as much, or more, culpability over the botched response at the DC 911 center (Office of Unified Communications or OUC)?

There was no similar detailed investigative report released about what went on at OUC that allowed untested communications hardware to be placed on fire trucks and ambulances (Read: “Report cites 911 center, new technology & fire lieutenant for DC delay in helping choking child“). There has been no discipline announced against 911 center workers who failed to recognize the equipment wasn’t working or for their delay in dispatching the call for a choking kid (Read “3:26 for DC 911 to dispatch a child not breathing call & no one gives a shit“).  In fact, the interim 911 director, Chris Geldart, candidly admitted all these failures, but cited the culture of fear from the previous director in his decision not to take disciplinary action at OUC (Read “Candid interview with interim director at DC 911 – says culture of fear delayed call to help child“). I can’t argue with Mr. Geldart on that one, but the same could be said about the administration of the previous fire chief, Kenneth Ellerbe.

Making this solely a DC Fire & EMS Department problem and making Guy Valentine the center of attention and outrage will not improve EMS in the Nation’s Capital. If those in charge in the District of Columbia are serious about getting timely, well trained help for the next child who is choking, they must begin to demand the same accountability at OUC as they are of the firefighters and paramedics.

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Paul Wagner, WTTG-TV/FOX 5:

D.C. law says firefighters should be held accountable for their actions, but the D.C. fire department has not been following that law all because of a loophole that you need to know about.

Ignoring the law allowed a firefighter to retire after he made a mistake that may have contributed to the death of a toddler. He will get his full pension and receive no discipline for the incident.

D.C. Fire and EMS Chief Gregory Dean said on Tuesday that he had no excuse for not enacting the regulations required by law that would have forced Lt. Guy Valentine to face a disciplinary process before being allowed to retire.

According to investigators, Valentine heard a call go out on March 18 for a choking child just three blocks from his station, but failed to take the call.

In a report released to the public, Valentine said he did not take the call because he was not dispatched and he did not know the house on Warren Street where the toddler was in distress was just three blocks away. The firehouse where he was assigned is at the corner of Warren Street and Wisconsin Avenue.

The report says the lieutenant’s engine with a paramedic on board was not dispatched because a communications tablet installed in the engine had become disconnected and dispatchers at the 911 center did not know the engine was in service at the station.

Still, investigators concluded the lieutenant heard the emergency on the radio and should have taken the call.

“Our goal is to find a way to correct this, make it right for the family and for the city, but at the same time, we accept responsibility,” said Chief Dean. “We have a move forward, we’ve got the regulations, we are having our legal team go through that and put them in place.”

The toddler, Martin Cuesta, was on life support for several days before he died. His father told us on Monday that he is extremely upset and sickened to hear no one will be held accountable for his son’s death.

The D.C. Council voted unanimously in 2014 to hold firefighters accountable for their actions and prevent them from retiring before facing discipline. The law was enacted last year, but the fire department failed to abide by the rules and did not adopt the regulations as required by the council.

“This has been a continuing problem that the council has had with the executive, meaning the mayor and all of the executive branch agencies, for the last 40 years,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. “They often times think that they can avoid the full effect of legislation by avoiding issuing rules.”

“I cannot tell you how disappointing and even maddening it is, not only for this instance and this instance is a bad case of it, allowing this loophole to continue,” said D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3). “But the council encounters this so many times where we have agencies that simply don’t do what they are told to do. Don’t do what the law requires them to do and this is another instance of it.”

The city council enacted the law after another lieutenant avoided discipline and retired with full benefits despite facing very serious charges for not going to the aid of Cecil Mills, a man who collapsed across the street from her firehouse and later died.

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