Fire chief revises controversial ambulance plan

December 28, 2012

Ambulance plan controversy has its roots in tensions between firefighters and EMTs. (Matt McClain for The Washington Post)

The District’s fire chief has backed off from a redeployment plan that would have kept the city’s most advanced ambulances off the streets during early morning hours.

In November, Kenneth B. Ellerbe proposed rescheduling his department’s “medic units” — 14 ambulances equipped with advanced life support technology and staffed by paramedics — to better match their availability with call volume, which peaks in the midday hours. Under his initial proposal, no medic units at all would be available between 1  and 7 a.m.

But the proposal garnered opposition from the D.C. firefighters union and some elected officials, who questioned the wisdom of leaving the city’s best-equipped ambulances idle.

In a hearing this month, Ellerbe said he was “reconsidering staffing alternatives to better address stakeholder input.” Under his latest proposal, he said Friday, five medic units would be staffed and available during the overnight hours.

Ellerbe said Friday that his new proposal was a compromise with the firefighters union, not an acknowledgment that his original plan was flawed.

“If that’s the only sticking point, I’d rather go ahead and acquiesce … than try to fight through this thing,” he said. “Trying to listen to everybody and come up with a plan that most folks can agree with and move forward with is a lot easier and probably better for the city than having us sit here bickering.”

Ed Smith, president of the firefighters union, said he was happy Ellerbe had retreated from his initial proposal. That plan would have put additional pressure on firefighter-staffed basic ambulances during the overnight hours by removing the medic units, which are staffed by specialized medical personnel. 

But Smith said he is waiting for the results of a staffing analysis his local has requested from its parent union, the International Association of Fire Fighters, before weighing in on whether the new plan is appropriate. He expects that study to be complete by late January.

“There’s definitely a need for more units on the street during those peak hours,” Smith said. “But you can’t rob Peter to pay Paul.”

Under both the original and modified redeployment plans, 25 basic ambulances staffed by less-trained emergency medical technicians would remain available during the overnight hours. Also, about 20 paramedics would be on the job during those times, embedded in fire companies.

Kenneth Lyons, president of the union representing the department’s non-firefighting medical personnel, said he believed Ellerbe’s original plan was the “most well-thought-out” way to relieve pressure on paramedics. But he said he understood the desire to compromise and move on.

“If he believes he’s met the concerns of a group of individuals, I think it’s a good move,” Lyons said.

Ellerbe said the redeployment plan remains in limbo pending approval from Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and the D.C. Council; that could take until March or April, he said Friday.

The proposal comes amid a longstanding and ongoing shortage of trained paramedics, with dozens of vacancies lingering in D.C.’s department. Ellerbe said at the hearing that he is increasing efforts to hire and retain paramedics, and on Friday, he also lamented a nationwide shortage of the highly trained personnel.

“That makes it tough,” he said. “This is a tough city to work in.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis · December 28, 2012