D.C. fire chief proposes revising ambulance deployment, removing truck, engine in Shaw


File: D.C. Fire and EMS Chief Kenneth Ellerbe (Jared Soares/For The Washington Post)
April 11

The District’s fire chief faced stiff opposition Friday to a surprise proposal to remove the fire engine and firetruck from the only station in Northwest Washington’s Shaw neighborhood, which he said was necessary to increase the number of ambulances citywide during peak call times.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson called the idea — mentioned in the last line of a 59-page document submitted to the Public Safety Committee — a “resolution with a little bomb in it.”

At a public hearing, Mendelson criticized Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe for not seeking comment from residents, unions and lawmakers before rolling out the proposal. He said the chief had failed to hire a sufficient number of paramedics, and he challenged Ellerbe to “bet your paycheck” on whether more than the current 191 paramedics would be on the payroll next year.

The debate over staffing at the fire station on New Jersey Avenue, which houses Truck 4 and Engine 6, overshadowed a goal that otherwise virtually everyone supports — more ambulances on the streets when they’re needed most. It is an effort by Ellerbe to respond to persistent problems such as slow response times, inadequate care and broken equipment. The deficiencies have drawn the wrath of residents and council members, and some have called for the chief’s ouster and labeled the department a national embarrassment.

The committee chairman, Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), said he wants “to move forward” with the chief’s proposal, “but that doesn’t mean we will close firehouse 6. . . . What’s causing heartburn is closing a firehouse with firetrucks.”

Wells said that if the chief wants to decommission the engine and truck he has to ask for public comment, hold hearings and do an impact study.

Residents in many neighborhoods are attached to their firehouses, treating firefighters as neighbors and the stations as valued community fixtures. Rachelle P. Nigro, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Shaw, told the panel that the neighborhood is growing, with a new hotel and an apartment house planned. “I take great comfort knowing that these firefighters are only two blocks away,” she said. “Extra minutes could cost lives.”

Ellerbe said he is trying to move the fire department away from its old role of primarily fighting fires to one that also emphasizes responding to medical emergencies, which account for most of the calls.

Last year, the council rejected his proposal to make more ambulances available during peak times, roughly 1 to 7 p.m. The proposal would have meant eliminating advanced life support units between 1 and 7 a.m., and council members and union representatives worried that would be too risky.

On Friday, Ellerbe said budgetary limits require some compromises, and he presented his latest proposal. He said he can keep 25 ambulances and 14 advanced life support units on the streets 24 hours a day and add six more advanced life support medics on overlapping schedules when call volumes are the greatest. But to do that, Ellerbe said, he would have to decommission Shaw’s Truck 4 and Engine 6 and send the firefighters elsewhere to make room for the medical units.

The chief said he needs the space for the six additional ambulances in a central location. Ellerbe also presented maps showing other fire stations within a two-mile radius, including stations in Capitol Hill, Mount Vernon Square and Chinatown.

“We must adapt to the reality the city faces,” Ellerbe said. “I understand the challenges that may come in any particular neighborhood. . . . But adding these transport units will allow us to meet a demand that I see every day as we run out of resources to provide emergency medical care.”

Edward C. Smith, president of the D.C. firefighters union, called shutdown unnecessary. “It’s absolutely mind-boggling to me that in this age of prosperity, that we’re doing this,” he said. “It’s another robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul scenario. The last time, it was taking away advance life support at night. Now it’s taking away fire protection to the Shaw neighborhood.”

The chief can seek hearings and public comment on his plan or return with a new proposal, Wells said.

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