D.C. fire department’s fleet in disrepair for nearly 20 years, consultant’s report says

A private consultant hired to assess the D.C. fire department’s fleet of engines, trucks and ambulances has made 129 recommendations to fix what it called a “system that has been in disrepair” for the past 15 to 20 years.

The report, which cost $183,000, credits the chief, Kenneth B. Ellerbe, with taking “initial steps” toward needed change, including buying 30 new ambulances to replace vehicles that often break down and giving the maintenance division a new manager.

But the report, from Washington-based BDA Global, criticizes the department for, among other things, failing to keep training certificates on file for mechanics and lacking a preventive maintenance plan for its 369 vehicles. The latter, described in the report’s top recommendation, is an essential, basic practice of keeping engines and trucks in good working order, according to the findings.

“It is not possible to put out fires, rescue people, and bring sick and injured people to a hospital without functioning emergency vehicles,” the report states. “The absence of a [preventive maintenance program] is a severe detriment to the fleet.” Upkeep, the report says, is “less expensive than a ‘bust-and-fix’ approach.”

Ellerbe ordered the report after the D.C. inspector general this year found the fleet of emergency vehicles to be inadequate and unprepared. The fire department has endured a series of problems that include slow response times, delays getting to critically ill or injured patients, and breakdowns and engine fires.

Ellerbe, speaking Tuesday at a previously scheduled briefing to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and council members, said the findings offer guidance for a department already embracing a major chance to modernize. “There is no easy fix, but it gives us a road map to the future,” Ellerbe said.

In his presentation, Ellerbe sought to highlight improvements this year, displaying a chart with response times for emergency medical technicians on critical medical calls. The response times have fallen from a high of over five minutes early in the year to about 4 minutes in each of the past six months, the chart showed.

But council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chairman of the public safety committee and a candidate for mayor, said the report reveals deep problems about readiness, and he said that none of the department’s proposed fixes to date appeared “radical” enough.

He called the report an “indictment of fleet management and maintenance” and scheduled an oversight hearing for Dec. 4. Wells focused on the report’s findings that the department lacks a preventive maintenance program for its vehicles and that ambulances and other units sent to the department’s repair shop had a rate of returning and then being taken offline for the same problem “that is nearly 20 times the industry standard.”

The report also says the department’s repair shop was dark and dirty and lacked lifts and pits needed to efficiently service its vehicles, some of which were left on the street awaiting repair.

Wells said the report’s findings lead him to wonder whether the city should get out of the fleet-maintenance business and work with a contractor, as the city’s police department has done.

Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
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