Fire Brass Likes Parking in Front of Hydrant

The irony, it burns

Fire Brass Likes Parking in Front of Hydrant was originally published on City Desk on Aug. 26, 2009, at 5:38 p.m.

The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services department has hydrant problems, that much we know. With water flow cited as a key cause in the destruction of Peggy Cooper Cafritz’s Chain Bridge Road manse last month, the department has been checking and rechecking plugs across the city to prevent another disaster.

Tania Shand also has hydrant problems.

Shand lives down the block from the FEMS headquarters, in the former Grimke School at T Street and Vermont Avenue N.W. She has a hydrant in front of her house, and fire department brass are constantly parking in front of it.

“It’s a regular occurrence,” she says, noting that she’ll catch cars parked illegally at least once a week. “It’s not just the fire vehicles; they will park their private vehicles there as well.”

And Shand says this isn’t a matter of idling for a few minutes while running an errand inside. “What I have a problem with is parking, going to a meeting, sitting in your office for two hours, and using that as legitimate parking.”

The situation came to a head earlier this month, when Shand was leaving for work and spotted a FEMS vehicle in front of the hydrant as she pulled out of her driveway. She drove up to the Grimke entrance, walked in and asked to see Fire Chief Dennis Rubin. He never showed, but another fire official, she says, made a “patronizing” comment equating her double-parked car to the hydrant-parker.

Incensed, she e-mailed Rubin demanding an explanation for his scofflaw subordinates.

Rubin, responding to the message, apologized. Barely. The phenomenon of fire officials obstructing fire hydrants, he explained, was due to the need “to make room for a customer that needed a child safety seat installed this morning. I could cancel the child safety seat program, but I don’t think that would make sense in that it is the only one in the City that I am aware of and clearly protects [our] children.”

Circling the block in search of a legal space, it seems, was not an option.

The hydrant offenses represent just one front of a war that’s been waged for years between Grimke’s neighbors and Grimke’s occupants -- the FEMS brass and the Department of Corrections. Says neighbor Chuck Dittrich, “They park on the sidewalk. They park in the alley.”

And in front of the hydrant. The photo supplied by Dittrich was taken in October 2007. The car spied by Shand last week was a similar FEMS fleet car.

The issue is the small parking lot available at Grimke for employees’ private cars. Add to that the bevy of fleet cars used there, and the result is a terrible parking crunch -- never mind that there’s a Metro station right across the street. At one point, Dittrich says, the parties hashed out an agreement with the help of Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham to have the city officials obey parking laws, but adherence to that covenant has deteriorated over the years.

Deputy Fire Chief Kenneth L. Crosswhite says he is aware of Shand’s complaints and has met with her several times, but he denies that department employees are parking vehicles in front of the hydrant. “That is one of Chief Rubin’s pet peeves. He made that known since Day 1,” he says. “I can assure you that there’s no officials parking in front of fire hydrants.”

Crosswhite notes that the department’s rulebook indicates that drivers of official cars are “accountable for ensuring that the parking/stopping of Department vehicles, during non-emergency situations, is done in such a way as to cause the least amount of inconvenience to the public.” The Grimke building and fire hydrants are both specifically mentioned.

But nowhere in the rule does it mention that drivers are obligated to follow applicable parking laws. Crosswhite does note that department employees are responsible for any tickets they may incur.

The long-term plan has been to move the city agencies out of Grimke, but D.C. Council politics have thus far interfered with that plan. Thus Dittrich posits a conspiracy of sorts on the part of the FEMS and corrections employees, who don’t want to be in the decrepit building any more than the neighbors do. “They try to do this on purpose,” Dittrich says. “Their goal is to take it out on us, to have us lobby to get rid of them.”

Dittrich says the hydrant violations would be the “most egregious” example thereof. Adds Shand, “It’s just symbolic of the whole sitation.”

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