March 17, 2013

DEMAND FOR AMBULANCE SERVICE drops off at 1 a.m. and doesn’t pick up again until about 7 a.m. D.C. fire and emergency medical officials argue it makes sense to move some crews and equipment that are sitting idle to times when they are needed. The fact that such a common-sense change has yet to happen is testament to the dysfunctional politics that have brought the department to what Kenneth B. Ellerbe, chief of Fire and Emergency Medical Services, called a “tipping point.”

A series of incidents in which people in the District were kept waiting for ambulances — one man died of a heart attack after waiting 29 minutes for help — has brought renewed scrutiny to a department that is generally seen as having made enormous strides since the controversy caused by its mishandling of the case of retired New York Times reporter David E. Rosenbaum seven years ago. But the incidents — most recently, the need to summon an ambulance from a different jurisdiction to transport a D.C. police officer seriously injured in a hit-and-run because no city vehicle was available — have created a debate over the department’s needs and how best to deliver services. D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who chairs the committee that oversees the department, will hold a hearing March 28.

Pitted against each other, as The Post’s Peter Hermann reported, are a firefighters union that blames bad management and lack of resources for the department’s problems and an administration that sees union intransigence imperiling initiatives that would better serve public safety.

It is clear that a factor in the increasingly ugly debate (for which both sides bear blame) is Mr. Ellerbe’s proposal for a dramatic change in firefighters’ work schedules so that they would work shorter but more frequent shifts. The plan, opposed by firefighters who have built lives around a schedule that requires only eight or nine workdays a month, is mired in an impasse over a contract. The separate plan to concentrate more paramedic shifts during peak times also hasn’t progressed because, we were astonished to learn, the fire chief — unlike the police chief who is entrusted with deployment decisions — can’t make the changes without the D.C. Council’s approval. Significantly, the union that represents the department’s civilian paramedics agrees with the chief that the issue is not, as the firefighters union argues, insufficient resources but instead a lack of flexibility in the system.

Mr. Ellerbe makes a strong case for breaking with tradition in how the department schedules and deploys its staff. The mission of the department has changed as the result of advances in building safety and fire prevention; more than 80 percent of calls are for medical emergencies, not fires. There is no understating the importance of firefighters or the considerable risks they take, and they have raised issues that bear scrutiny. But decisions about the direction of the department should be made by those in charge, based on what best serves public needs.