But other progress has come more slowly to a department the D.C. Council chairman has called an “embarrassment to the city.” The new initiatives — among the most substantial since the District’s fire chief, Kenneth B. Ellerbe, was hired in 2011 — are unlikely to eliminate mounting criticism of Ellerbe’s performance from elected leaders, union officials, the rank and file, and the city’s inspector general.
City leaders and those with the firefighters union called the new ambulances a welcome move but said the announcement doesn’t erase the department’s recent problems, including poor response times that involved at least one death as well as a string of maintenance issues and, this month, two ambulance fires on the same day.
“It’s good news and a welcome sight to see new ambulances, but they are a year too late,” said D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who chairs the council’s public safety committee and is running for mayor. “But I’m happy to be replenishing the fleet, especially because of all the mishaps they’ve had.”
Among other embarrassments, a lack of available ambulances in March left an injured D.C. police officer stranded until help arrived from Maryland. Air-conditioning failures in 60 ambulances in June forced the city to outsource its contract to provide emergency medical services at Nationals baseball games. An ambulance ran out of fuel during a presidential motorcade.
Union leaders said these problems result from shoddy equipment and poor management. The city blamed firefighters — accusing them of undermining attempts at reform — and suggested that some incidents should be investigated for sabotage. Did firefighters forget to put fuel in the president’s ambulance, or did the department fail to fix a faulty fuel gauge? A piece of rubber too close to an air conditioner may have sparked a fire in an ambulance, but who put it there and why?
Ellerbe said Tuesday’s announcement, meanwhile, will showcase one of the largest purchases of vehicles the fire department has undertaken in a single year. He declined to give a precise number but said it was more than 20.
“It takes years to go through this process,” the chief said in an interview. “While people were jumping up and down, we were in the process of talking to our distributors.” He said this purchase shows that “we are moving forward, turning a corner.”
He said the city spent about $7 million on the new purchases. A new model cost about $232,000, but he said at least six are refurbished older ambulances. Ellerbe said this purchase puts the District on a schedule “so the city will never have this kind of deficit again.”