D.C. Fire and EMS Graduates New Class of DC Cadets

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By K. Levek and Malia Kai Salaam

The District’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services department has had a rocky year. Situations ranging from internal fighting amongst department heads and the union to allegations of incompetence due to slow response times, peppered the local news media.  However, department head, Chief Kenneth Ellerbe has managed to escape all the negative criticism with a positive outlook on the department’s future.

He has said, “we’re talking about fixing a system that’s been broken for many years and we’re trying to address all the problems.”  The chief announced findings by an independent consultant, which states while there are continuous needed reforms, great strides and improvements have been made.  The report, conducted by BDA Global, a Washington-based management-consulting firm, was released the last week of November and while it shed light on past issues, it also showed improvements that have been made by the agency.

The report detailed some of the department’s most embarrassing times, including slow response times and other issuesthat only deepened as the year progressed, including delays getting to a heart attack victim who later died and to a police officer who remained on the side of a road with a broken leg for 29 minutes waiting for an ambulance. Dozens of ambulances broke down and some caught fire; the chairman of the D.C. Council called the fire department an “embarrassment to the city.”  However, the department has had its share of proud moments including the ordering of new ambulances and an increase in emergency response times.

Recently, Chief Ellerbe has named Eugene A. Jones, former Prince George’s County fire chief as the District’s new Assistant Chief for Operations.  His appointment comes as a special order from Chief Ellerbe.  Jones led the Prince George’s County department from early 2009 — returning to the department after as a major with 25 years of service.

Other notable accomplishments of the department include its ongoing cadet program.  The department has been ushering in a new wave of District residents who will join the Fire and EMS department, through their cadet training program.  On November 22nd the department held its cadet graduation ceremony where the department boasts training District residents, particularly residents from Wards 7 and 8, the most economically deprived wards in the city.  The cadet-training program seems to have found its stride, having consistent enrollment each year between 20 and 30 trainees.  This year the program graduated 23 cadets.

Still the department’s highlight has been the cadet-training program where the two-fold mission is to, “Promote safety and health through excellent pre-hospital medical care and to promote safety and health through excellent fire suppression, hazardous materials responses, technical rescue, homeland security preparedness, fire prevention and education.” 

One of the ways FEMS is able to carry out this mission is to have a pool of qualified candidates from which to select.  In 1988, the department instituted a cadet training program to create such resource of young DC residents, fueling opportunity for them to enter a distinctive, high-demand profession.  For the past three years, under the leadership of Chief Ellerbe, FEMS has revitalized the cadet-training program that had previously been besieged by funding issues, low recruitment, low retention and graduation rates, and being forced to disqualify trainees who violated residency requirements.

One of the department’s biggest setbacks was in 2006, when former Chief Adrian Thompson was forced to return over $200,000 in federal funds due to low enrollment.  That amount did not include the additional funds that had to be returned annually for cadets who do not complete the program.  FEMS Public Information Office, Timothy Wilson said after the funding was cut, “The program remained stagnant another four years after that.”  He noted, “Historically, one of the highlights has been the training program’s ability to provide a cadre of potential firefighters on a consistent basis.  Going forward, we want to maintain a high level of consistency in getting cadets through the program.”

Captain Walter Jernigan, Director of Recruitment for the program said the department provides many young people the opportunity to “find their why.”  This sense of purpose, that might have previously been untapped, is nurtured through active engagement and recruitment of 12th grade students in particular.  “Each spring, sometime between March and May, we come out to DCPS and DC Public Charter Schools, hold assemblies and orientations. We participate in Career Fairs and at the end of the year we receive recommendations of prospective cadets from the schools’ Guidance Counselors.”  As an added measure, to capture, say a student who received a GED or might have already gone away to college for one year, FEMS partnered with the Department of Employment Services (DOES) in order to fund those cadets who met all other requirements, sans being a currently enrolled in high school.

At this juncture, the cadet-training program seems to have found its stride, having consistent enrollment each year between 20 and 30 trainees.  Applicants interested in joining the next class of cadets, who begin training in fall 2014, should be District of Columbia Public and Charter High School Students between the ages of 18-19 years old.  They cannot reach their 20th birthday on or before January 31, 2014. They must hold a valid provisional Driver’s License.  The department strongly recommends that they inquire with their school’s Guidance Counselor for help with the application.

After FEMS receives applications, an Assessment Test is conducted by the Community College of the District of Columbia (CCDC).  Once applicants have completed the assessment test, a registry is generated and applicants are then ranked by test results. The pre-hiring process requires that applicants complete a Personal History Statement, also known as a “Blue Book.”  Next, documentation is collected to verify proof of age, citizenship, DC residency, education, and selective service application (for males only).  Finally, applicants are expected to undergo a Police/FBI background check, submit a motor vehicle report, complete a Police and Fire Medical Evaluation, a psychological assessment, an interview, and reference check.  Wilson said, “Each cadet has had to overcome some sort of barrier to even cross the threshold.  It’s not easy, it’s not a cakewalk. Completing this program requires a strong sense of mental toughness that people don’t consider.  Our cadets are committed to accomplishing something early in their lives.  It doesn’t matter what obstacles are in their path…they’re just that committed!”

The District funds the training course and cadets receive a stipend of about $22,000 while they are in the classes and graduate to a salary of $44,000 a year.  A 2013 graduate, Danaryae Lewis told the Washington Post she is happy to have attended the training course because “It made me view life in a different way.”

Graduates of the one-year training program each receive:

  • National Registry Emergency Medical Technician membership (NREMT)
  • Nationally recognized Candidate Physical Ability Test certificate (CPAT)
  • IFSAC Hazardous Materials Awareness and Operations certification
  • IFSAC Firefighter I and II certification
  • Receive a stipend during the program
  • Career opportunity with the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department
  • $40K + a year salary once hired and benefits (Health, Dental, and Vision)

For more information on how a young person can join the upcoming class, stay tuned to www.fems.dc.gov for information, or email info@fems.dc.gov.  The department also has a civilian EMT training course, for adults who have aged out of the traditional cadet program.

Among other things announced, Chief Ellerbe has named Eugene A. Jones, former Prince George’s County fire chief as the District’s new Assistant Chief for Operations.  His appointment comes as a special order from Chief Ellerbe.  led the Prince George’s County department from early 2009 — returning to the department after  as a major with 25 years of service.

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