The son of a District man who suffered a heart attack and died after waiting nearly a half-hour for an ambulance to take him to a hospital on New Year’s Day is scheduled to testify Thursday at a D.C. Council hearing that will examine the fire department’s performance.
Durand A. Ford Jr., 37, said he wants to be a voice amid testimony from a long line of officials investigating a string of slow responses to emergencies and a revelation that many fire vehicles in the reserve fleet are either broken or decommissioned.
His father, Durand A. Ford Sr., a 71-year-old retired accountant, died after collapsing in his home about 90 minutes after midnight. The son thinks that his father died needlessly after a long wait for help. The city maintains that the elder Ford was treated by a firefighter trained in advanced life support who arrived within 10 minutes of being dispatched and that the delay in the ambulance’s arrival did not contribute to his death.
Ford, who cited recent cases in which no D.C. ambulance was available for an injured police officer and a stroke victim was taken to a hospital in a fire engine because the nearest ambulance was seven miles away, said there is evidence of a systemic problem.
“I think it’s really a disgrace that in the nation’s capital we’re even having these kinds of issues,” said Ford, explaining in an interview that he is sick of accusations hurtled between the fire union and the city. “This is an area that is of critical importance. . . . As we get into the spring and summer tourist seasons, we need to make sure that our first response to emergencies is first class.”
The 11:30 a.m. hearing Thursday at the John A. Wilson Building will include testimony from Kenneth B. Ellerbe, the fire chief, and Edward C. Smith, president of the firefighters union. The two are waging a pitched battle over the direction of the department, staffing and equipment. Ellerbe has proposed changes in schedules and deployment that he says will solve problems, and he blames the rank and file for the most recent issues. The union says that Ellerbe has mismanaged the department. This week, members voted no confidence in his leadership.
The call Jan. 1 to the home in Southeast Washington was the first of several high-profile incidents in which there were problems with the emergency response. Ford said family members who were with his father reported that it took at least 40 minutes before advanced-life-support care was given. At the time, more than a third of the city’s firefighters had called in sick, leaving the department short on one of the busiest nights of the year. The union has denied an organized sickout.
Fire officials have called Ford’s numbers inaccurate, saying that his father was treated by the paramedic who arrived in a fire truck nine minutes after being dispatched at 1:26 a.m.
There was no ambulance immediately available to take the victim to a hospital, and a dispatcher summoned help from neighboring Prince George’s County at 1:45 a.m., the department said. By then, a basic life support unit from the District became free and arrived at the house at 1:55 a.m. The elder Ford died shortly after arriving at Howard University Hospital.
Ford said his family was further angered by receiving a $780 bill for an ambulance that he said “came too late to save my father’s life.” The city said it was an insurance notice, although Ford said that no one should have to pay. He plans to present the council committee with a petition signed by 160,000 people demanding the bill be rescinded.
“This is not just an issue for one District resident, this is an issue for everyone,” he said.