The District of Columbia’s fire chief apologized March 28 for recent failures that led to slow ambulance response times and for failing to maintain accurate information about the readiness of the department’s fleet, but he insisted that the department has the resources it needs to handle major emergencies.

Two D.C. council members said that they were unsatisfied with some of Chief Kenneth Ellerbe’s responses and that they were concerned about his management of the department, given its staff and equipment shortages.

“The department has got to improve,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said.
Earlier this month, a D.C. police officer was seriously injured in a hit-and-run and had to wait 15 minutes for an ambulance from neighboring Prince George’s County, Md., because no city ambulances were available. Two days later, a man suffering a stroke had to be taken to a hospital on a fire truck because the nearest ambulance was nine miles away. The department also struggled with slow response times on New Year’s Day, when dozens of firefighters called in sick in what their union denies was an organized sickout.

“I would like to offer my sincere apology for the patients and families involved in several incidents recently. I am deeply troubled by each of these incidents,” Ellerbe said. “As the fire and EMS chief of the District of Columbia, I accept responsibility for the actions of our department and our employees.”

Problems with emergency medical service in the nation’s capital date back decades. In 2006, New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum was beaten during a robbery and died after he did not get proper care because the emergency medical technicians who transported him thought he was drunk.

“I think that seven years since the Rosenbaum tragedy, we would be beyond realizing there are problems and learning what to do,” Mendelson said. “The city has made a lot of progress, (but) it feels to the public like we are right back where we were.”

Councilman Tommy Wells, who presided over the hearing as chairman of the council’s public safety committee, said it was clear there were systemic issues in the department, given its inability to procure new trucks and ambulances and the attrition rate of its paramedics.

Paul Quander, the district’s deputy mayor for public safety, said the city has 111 ambulances, but only 58 are operational. Thirty-nine ambulances are deployed at any given time.

A report issued last week by the district’s inspector general found that in the most recent month for which data were available, the city had only one available ladder truck in reserve. The department is supposed to have a dozen reserve trucks to ensure readiness in the event of a major emergency, a requirement put in place after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Ellerbe conceded that he had provided inaccurate information to the council about the reserve fleet and that he had been managing the department based on that bad data for a year. The department is undertaking a comprehensive, truck-by-truck review of the fleet, he said.

“I just don’t understand how the chief of the Fire and EMS Department would not know how many vehicles are available,” Mendelson said.

Ellerbe said the department does not have a shortage of trucks and ambulances. But he also said the department needs to change to keep up with the emergency medical call volume in the fast-growing city, which is adding more than 1,000 residents a month. Ellerbe wants to redeploy some ambulances to the daytime hours and make a major change to firefighters’ work schedules. The union has resisted the schedule change, saying it would disrupt firefighters’ lives without improving fire or emergency medical service.

Ellerbe conceded that the department needs to hire more paramedics — there has been a net loss since he became chief — and said it is trying to recruit military veterans who have the requisite training. He added that hiring was difficult because paramedics also are required to be firefighters, although the vast majority of large fire and EMS departments have similar arrangements.

Quander said the department, “for the most part,” is meeting its goal of having a paramedic on the scene of an emergency within eight minutes and an ambulance within 13 minutes. But many large urban departments try to get paramedics on the scene within four minutes and transport vehicles within eight minutes, in keeping with standards established by the National Fire Protection Association.

“He doesn’t have the medics to achieve that,” said Lori Moore-Merrell, an assistant to the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, who also testified. Merrell said the district’s department has a bad reputation nationally for providing emergency care and that paramedics hired from other jurisdictions are leaving because of the demands placed on them.