“We know that we are at a tipping point in terms of providing service to the community,” Ellerbe said at a news conference Friday. “I’ve been saying that to the council. I’ve been saying that for almost two years. It’s time for us to make a change in the way we deliver service.”
Ellerbe’s remarks follow at least three high-profile cases in which ambulances took an unusually long time to respond to medical emergencies.
In the first, just after New Year’s Eve, a heart-attack victim died after waiting 29 minutes for an ambulance. On Tuesday, a motorcycle police officer struck by a car waited 15 minutes with a badly broken leg for a ride to the hospital. And late Thursday, an elderly man who suffered a stroke was transported in a fire engine because the nearest ambulance was seven miles away.
The controversy reignites a debate from seven years ago, when retired New York Times reporter and editor David E. Rosenbaum died after emergency personnel mistook his injuries from a vicious mugging for public intoxication and had considered him a low-priority call. The case, which stained the District’s fire department on a national stage, prompted recommendations for improvements that still have not been fully implemented.
The case revealed a long series of failures and remains the benchmark for evaluating the quality of emergency care in the District. Rosenbaum’s family dropped a lawsuit against the city in exchange for a promise to implement recommendations from a task force.
For weeks, Ellerbe has been pushing to overhaul how paramedics are deployed — changes, he said Friday, that would have prevented the recent delays. A key element of the plan, he said, is to take advanced life-support paramedics off the streets during the overnight hours so more can be deployed during peak daytime and evening hours.
Complicating his proposal are inflamed labor relations and the reality that contract talks with the 1,800-member firefighters’ union have been stalled for months. Angry union officials who have fought vociferously against Ellerbe’s reforms say his plan would do nothing to improve across-the-board response times. The problem, they say, is insufficient staffing and poor management.
Managers are critical of the union, too. They point to, among other things, the fact that more than 100 firefighters mysteriously called in sick New Year’s Eve, which was the shift when the heart-attack victim died.
Edward C. Smith, president of the firefighters union Local 36, called Ellerbe’s proposal a shell game, saying that “the department needs to grow, not steal resources from one time frame and give them to another.”