Debate over D.C. fire staffing renewed after officer’s long wait for ambulance

March 6, 2013

A D.C. police officer seriously injured in a hit-and-run Tuesday had to wait at least 15 minutes for an ambulance from another jurisdiction because there were none available in the District, a delay that renewed a debate over fire department staffing.

The officer, who is expected to survive, was treated by a paramedic who arrived on a city fire engine within eight minutes of the crash. But the problem in getting the officer to the hospital angered the heads of the police and fire unions, who have complained about what they say are questionable management practices leading to inadequate care.

“It’s unacceptable, especially when one of our brothers in blue is injured,” said Edward Smith, president of the D.C. firefighters Local 36.

Kristopher Baumann, the president of the D.C. police union, said that it was “inexcusable that a D.C. ambulance was not available,” and he demanded that the fire chief, Kenneth B. Ellerbe, be held accountable.

Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul A. Quander Jr. said he has ordered “a full evaluation of the events to determine why there were no ambulances available.” He noted that the officer received medical care, but he said that “our goal is to make sure we have ambulances and medical units available.”

When asked whether the officer’s injuries were adversely affected by any delays, Quander said, “I don’t believe so, but that’s what will be determined by the review.”

A city official with knowledge of the incident said as many as 10 ambulances may have stopped work before the end of their shifts Tuesday evening, leaving the city short-staffed. The Prince George’s County ambulance came from a station in Capitol Heights, taking 10 minutes to travel eight miles to the accident.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the pending inquiry, said the paramedics will be questioned. Some units may have taken “shortcuts and decided to check off early and do other things,” the official said.

Smith, the fire union head, said he had also heard “unsubstantiated reports” that crews had stopped working. “If there is need for an investigation, we welcome it,” Smith said. But, he added, “I don’t know what the contributing factors were.”

Smith said that four units were sidelined with mechanical problems and that two were delayed getting back to the street because they had to be sanitized after a run. That accounts for some, but not all, of the out-of-service vehicles.

Asked to respond to reports that paramedics may have left work early, Pedro Ribeiro, the spokesman for the mayor, said only, “The entire incident is under review.” A spokesman for Ellerbe, the fire chief, did not return calls seeking comment.

Tuesday’s incident comes just weeks after union officials and the fire chief sounded off at a hearing in front of the D.C. Council’s public safety committee. Both sides traded blame over slow response times and sparred over staffing and the need to quickly hire more paramedics.

Ellerbe testified that it is not uncommon for people to wait as long as 15 minutes for an ambulance in some city neighborhoods, more than double the national standard.

Over New Year’s, city officials accused the union of organizing a sickout in which one-third of the firefighters scheduled to work that day failed to show up. A man died of a heart attack after waiting 16 minutes for the first help to arrive and an additional 13 minutes for the ambulance, according to the fire department.

Police said Tuesday’s crash occurred shortly after 6:30 p.m. at 46th and A streets Southeast. Gwendolyn Crump, the department’s chief spokeswoman, said the officer, an eight-year veteran, was stopped on his motor scooter when he was struck by a white Lexus whose driver sped away.

Crump said officers found the Lexus three blocks away and later arrested three suspects, all of Southeast. Kevin Burno, 24, was charged with felony assault on a police officer; and Antonio Parks, 22, and Darrin Twisdale, 25, were each charged with obstruction of justice and possession of an open container of alcohol.

Quander said the first 911 call came in at 6:34 p.m. Engine Co. 27, based on Minnesota Avenue in Deanwood, arrived at the accident scene three miles away at 6:42 p.m. The engine is staffed with an advanced life support paramedic, who began treatment. A supervisor arrived at 6:51 p.m. and helped render aid.

Quander said 39 ambulances or paramedic units were supposed to be on the streets, but a dispatcher was unable to find one free. “Either they were assigned to calls or were otherwise unavailable,” he said.

He said the dispatcher requested help from Prince George’s County at 6:40 p.m. Quander said the ambulance arrived at 6:52 p.m., after a total of 18 minutes, and then sped to the trauma unit at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

A spokesman for the Prince George’s fire department provided slightly different times, saying the ambulance arrived at 6:49 p.m.

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