D.C. fire department says it has improved response times

The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department has made strides in reducing the time it takes for firetrucks and ambulances to respond to emergency medical calls, according to department data for the past four months.

Response times for critical medical calls met the department standard — 61 / 2 minutes or less — in 92 percent of cases in June, exceeding the benchmark of 90 percent, according to statistics provided to The Washington Post on Thursday. In February, response times met the 61 / 2-minute standard in 84 percent of critical medical calls.

The average response time for critical calls — which represent about half of the 400 daily calls for medical service — also dropped, to four minutes and two seconds in June from five minutes and three seconds in February.

The department has long been criticized for its response times, and February’s results were worse than 2012 averages, according to department data.

To bring response times down, Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe said in an interview, supervisors began requesting in March that firefighters and paramedics fill out forms explaining what went wrong whenever a call took longer than it should have.


D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe is seen at the Wilson Building in Washington on March 28. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

“What has changed is our attention to detail,” Ellerbe said. “We’re letting them know there are expectations and occasionally holding them accountable.”

One employee was suspended for a call that took much longer than expected for no justifiable reason, Ellerbe said. “There have been times when we have questioned the intentions, or the response times, of employees,” Ellerbe said.

Dabney Hudson, second vice president of the D.C. Fire Fighters Association, said city firefighters have been asked to file about 200 to 300 special reports a day. “There’s been so much worthless paperwork because of this,” Hudson said. “They’re so consumed with these response times.”

Keith St. Clair, a spokesman for the deputy mayor for public safety and justice, acknowledged that firefighters have had to file more paperwork, but he said Hudson’s estimates were far too high.

Because of the pressure, Hudson said, firefighters and ambulance drivers have been sacrificing safety to rush to destinations. He said the rate of minor road accidents for emergency vehicles went up more than 300 percent in the first two months of the department’s push for faster response times.

Hudson also said firefighters are pushing a button in emergency vehicles to indicate that they have responded to a call before they have. “Guys are scared they’re going to get in trouble,” he said, “so they’re just hitting the response button.”

Ellerbe said improvements during the past four months have been achieved without the addition of staff or equipment because of clearer instructions to employees.

Twenty-two new paramedics are scheduled to start work at the end of the month, and officials expect new vehicles to start arriving in coming weeks, Ellerbe said. The fleet ordinarily receives up to 10 vehicles a year, he said, but this year’s vehicle acquisitions will be “unprecedented.” He declined to say how many vehicles the department is receiving.

Hudson said that 53 paramedics have quit in the past 21 / 2 years and that none have been replaced. Working paramedics have been ordered repeatedly to stay an extra 12 hours after their 24-hour shifts end — a procedure that is supposed to be reserved for dire emergencies, he said.

In 2012, Hudson said, paramedics were held over on 185 shifts. In the first seven months of 2013, they have been held over 411 times. “That’s why these response times are coming down,” he said.

Julie Zauzmer is a local news reporter.
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