By Andrea Noble
The Washington Times
WASHINGTON — D.C. firefighters are being dispatched on late-night patrols to high-crime areas as deterrents and during the day to provide payday protection for residents enrolled in the city's youth-jobs program, raising safety concerns for the "unarmed" firefighters.
The order was issued by the office of Mayor Vincent C. Gray to prevent problems like those last summer when participants in the Summer Youth Employment Program were targeted for muggings and to cut back on summer crime.
Lon Walls, spokesman for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services, said Wednesday the firefighters are not expected to serve as policemen, "but sometimes a uniform presence can be a deterrent."
However, union officials question why the Gray administration would send firefighters to some of the city's worst corners and perhaps put their safety at risk.
"They are going to send unarmed, untrained firefighters out into some of the most dangerous areas," said police union Chairman Kristopher Baumann.
A Metropolitan Police Department email obtained by The Washington Times shows firefighters will be deployed at 14 spots across the city — sometimes until 4 a.m.
Among them are the 5600 block of Clay Street in Northeast, known for burglaries and robberies, and the corner of North Capitol Street and Florida Avenue in Northwest.
On the night of Jan. 19, a 33-year-old D.C. man was fatally shot on the hardscrabble corner while returning from the theater. Police said he was trying to help a woman and was shot.
"I'm concerned that this is a knee-jerk reaction to what is a serious problem that is clearly a police matter and not a fire department matter," fire union President Edward C. Smith said.
Paul Quander, deputy mayor for public safety, said all D.C. government employees have a responsibility to look out for residents.
"We wanted to use our resources wisely and strategically," he said of the deployment, which started three weeks ago. "We are not putting [firefighters] at any additional risk. I think it enhances their ability to connect with the community."
Mr. Quander said the assignments will not take firefighters from their regular duties and that they will not act as police.
"If something takes place, they will use their radios or cellphone," he said. "They will not take direct action."
He declined to say how many firefighters will be deployed or verify the locations. He did say the police department selected the locations based on crime data.
Police officials declined to comment.
Having enough officers has been an ongoing problem for D.C. police officials as they often lose them to higher-paying agencies in and around the city.
The department employs about 3,850 officers, and officials have routinely testified about the need to hire hundreds more this year to offset an attrition rate that is expected to cut the force to 3,700 by next summer.
Wednesday was the first payday for residents, 14 to 21, in the summer employment program. Mr. Quander said one participant was mugged that morning.
In the first week of the program, two female participants reported sexual assaults at their job sites.
The program — which this year employs more than 14,000 residents in government and private-sector jobs for six weeks — was started in 1979 by Mayor Marion Barry and has had a history of problems, including mismanagement.
Under Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, the program was $30 million over budget in 2008, paying some nonresidents and others who never showed up to work. Last year, at least five participants reportedly were mugged on payday. Some were wearing T-shirts identifying them as part of the program.
Copyright 2011 The Washington Times