Outside editorial: Obey an order, or go to the rescue?

Posted: Friday, December 28, 2007

With 21 years' service as a D.C. firefighter, Lt. Gerald Burton is not exactly a novice when it comes to knowing how to respond to a call for help. He is also more than a little knowledgeable about the department's rules. As in the military, rank determines the pecking order, and you buck a supervisor at your peril. Yet when an order appears to conflict with a firefighter's mandate to put people's lives above all else, what does a veteran's instinct tell him to do? As it happened about 1:40 p.m. on Nov. 21, Mr. Burton's necessarily snap decision to respond to a call has turned him into a bad Samaritan in the by-the-books eyes of his superiors.

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Mr. Burton was driving a fire engine on his way to a training class when he heard a call about a house fire only blocks away, in the 1800 block of Second Street NW. He dutifully called a supervisor to say he was in the area and could help. His supervisor said no, go on to school, according to Mr. Burton's attorney, Donna Rucker. About two blocks from the fire, Mr. Burton was flagged down by people on the side of the road, who told him a home was burning; he proceeded with understandable dispatch to the scene and saw flames. At that point, Mr. Burton again alerted his supervisor, who told him to play a backup role rather than a frontline role. All well and good, maybe, but according to Ms. Rucker, Mr. Burton and another firefighter riding with him found themselves the only firefighters on the scene, at least for the moment. Though other firefighters arrived almost immediately, Mr. Burton and the firefighter with him put out the blaze, Ms. Rucker said.

All in a day's work? Not for Mr. Burton, who now faces a two-day suspension without pay for disobeying an order. Now, we can all respect the importance of a chain of command in emergencies - but what about respect for human calls for help? According to fire officials, who note that they are not at liberty to comment on personnel matters, Mr. Burton can take the case to the department's trial board. Given the circumstances - and the need to interpret them with a healthy dose of common sense - he certainly should.

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