Deep management troubles overshadow D.C. fire department efforts to roll out good news

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post - D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe is seen under scrutiny by the D.C. Council at the Wilson Building in Washington on March 28.

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As the D.C. fire department prepares this week to roll out its first good news in months, evidence of deeper management troubles continues to overshadow the beleaguered public-safety agency.

Department officials will announce Tuesday a rollout of more than 20 new ambulances, a step toward righting an agency that has repeatedly failed in its most basic mission in recent months — to get help quickly and competently to the injured and sick. More than 20 newly hired paramedics are also expected to join the department’s ranks.

(Courtesy of D.C. Firefighters Local Union #36) - This ambulance caught fire earlier this summer on Benning Road in Southeast Washington.

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Problem is the latest for agency that has had trouble with response times and staffing.

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.”

Still, a close examination of some of the department’s higher-profile woes suggests a failure on the part of department leaders to address them. Among the problems:

●The city has failed to buy the 16 fire engines and seven trucks that officials said were needed in 2010. Ellerbe said purchase orders have been cut for six new engines and two new trucks, but he declined to say how long it might take to get them on the streets. He attributed delays to holdups by the D.C. Council and a vendor dispute.

Ellerbe said 30 new ambulances have been purchased since he took over in 2011. But he acknowledged that the department is still behind in updating aging vehicles, with models as old as 2001 still in use. The life span of a typical city ambulance is three years, but plans to continuously order new vehicles have fallen behind.

●Despite a scathing report in March from the D.C. inspector general, which called the department’s reserve fleet a shambles — with trucks listed as ready to respond to fires found stripped and sitting in scrap yards, one in Wisconsin — Ellerbe has not yet hired a civilian to oversee vehicle maintenance. The department has spent $160,000 for a consultant to take a proper inventory of its trucks and engines.

●During a single week this month, more than half the advance life-support ambulances — 128 — hit the streets without paramedics. In fire department parlance, they were “downgraded” to basic life support because of the training levels of the personnel on board, meaning they were unable to administer controlled drugs, intubate patients or use electrocardiogram machines to read heart fluctuations. Sixty fire engines that were supposed to have firefighters trained as paramedics aboard did not. Fifteen paramedic supervisor shifts were not filled.

●Two dozen paramedics were out sick — about two-thirds of those scheduled to work — the weekend of Aug. 10. That means nine of 14 advanced life-support ambulances were not available from 7 p.m. Saturday to 7 a.m. Sunday. On New Year’s Day, 97 firefighters and paramedics called in sick, and a man suffering a heart attack died after waiting 29 minutes for ambulance to take him to a hospital.

On average, 20 to 30 out of 340 firefighters scheduled to work each day call out sick. Last week, eight called out on Sunday, 10 on Monday and eight on Tuesday. Twenty-six were sick Wednesday and 31 Thursday.

Fire officials view the periodic large-scale absences as suspicious; union officials say a properly staffed department could absorb the unscheduled leave. Firefighters’ ranks were so depleted last week that, according to the union, 67 of them were forced to work 12 hours beyond the 24-hour shifts they had just completed.

The fire chief disputed the number of paramedics the union said should be hired, but he has declined to say how many he thinks are necessary. In addition to accusing the rank and file of abusing sick leave, Ellerbe said that attempts to cross-train paramedics with the duties of firefighters have made recruiting tough because many do not want to fight fires.

The new class soon hitting the streets is not being cross-trained, a break from a model that was a key reform recommendation after the death of David E. Rosenbaum in 2006. Rosenbaum died after emergency personnel mistook injuries he suffered from a mugging as drunkenness and labeled the incident a low priority.

Wells said he was disappointed that the new class has not been cross-trained.

“I assume this is a stopgap measure,” he said.

Ellerbe supports cross-training to help modernize the department at a time when there are fewer fires to put out and more medical calls — 80 percent of the District’s 160,000 911 calls per year to the fire department are for ambulances.

But Ellerbe’s attempts to change firefighters’ schedules have been caught in union contract talks. Ellerbe says the changes would improve response times, but union officials say they would be too disruptive to members’ lives.

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