Ten times an hour this New Year, someone will have to ride in an ambulance in the District of Columbia. About six of those trips will be in D.C. Fire Department ambulances, free. The other four or so, mostly non-emergencies, will be in private ambulances, at an average of $35 a run.
There is no other difference between the two services, at least none that will matter to you if you are seriously sick. Both the city and the "privates" offer drivers with paramedical training. Both kinds of ambulances have identical equipment, as required by the City Council. Both know the right side streets to get you to the emergency room fast.
And most of the time, it isn't hard to get an ambulance here. Just call 911 and keep looking out the window. But on Saturday nights, bad weather nights, hard drinking nights, the calls-per-hour leap like Julius Erving.
The city's five major private ambulance companies ought to spring into action at times like these. After all, the point is to get sick people treated. But a person who calls a Fire Department ambulance never gets anything but a Fire Department ambulance, even if it means waiting for an hour or more.
This is a particularly ironic state of affairs for Sterling W. Hackett Sr. Four years ago, a cherry red hot line phone was installed in his basement office at 814 Upshur St. NW. It links his ambulance company with the Fire Department dispatcher. The idea was that the dispatcher would call Hackett whenever the city's ambulances were jammed up.
The phone has never rung.
It has rung on the Fire Department switchboard, for Hackett likes to play jokes with the dispatchers. He likes to call them up and say, "just checking up on you buddy." But the dispatchers never check up on Hackett.
Why not? It is certainly not because there is a shortage of business. Nor is it because the firemen don't know or trust Hackett.
He has been in the ambulance business in Washington for 28 years. He makes 20,000 runs a year. He is former vice chairman of the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Emergency Medical Services. His storeroom is full of the latest equipment. He is licensed and bonded and all that.
The reason is simply that "we've got no authority to call him," said Joseph Shelton, the battalion fire chief in charge of emergency ambulance service.
Shelton concedes that using Sterling Hackett would make sense. "If you make a person wait one second longer than necessary (for an ambulance), something's wrong," he said.
But who would be liable if something went wrong? Unclear. And who would pay Hackett? Also unclear.
Both questions have been under study in the Department of Human Resources for four years. That was when former deputy mayor Graham Watt, using federal grant funds, had Hackett's hot line installed. Similar phones were installed at the same time in evvery other private ambulance office and at every hospital in the city.
The questions remain because the District government does not have the money to underwrite Hackett's insurance, or to pay him by the run. So separate-but-equal ambulancing remains. The Fire Department has gradually added four ambulances, installed new equipment and upgraded its paramedical training, so things are better. But not as better as they might be.
Hackett sees another area ripe for improvement: the attitude of the city's drivers. "They don't give a damn," he claims. "They don't deserve the praise they get, rough-talking the people and all. What you hear about people dying in the streets is no lie."
Hackett is also miffed that he and other private ambulance men in the city have to carry ID cards similar to those displayed in taxis, while Fire Department drivers don't. "It's separate standards, even though the service is the same," Hackett said. He claims the ID system is just a left-handed way for the city to make a few extra bucks in license fees.
Shelton noted that Hackett is, foremost, a businessman. "He's in it for a dollar," Shelton said. "Some people sell ping pong balls, some people play tennis, some people run an ambulance service." Shelton added, "Our boys do a good job out there. We have one of the most outstanding records in the country."
But neither man is chiefly interested in trying to undermine the other. Shelton says it all comes down to service - how good, how fast, how reliable. And Hackett notes that he could be making money in lost of businesses, but has chosen to "help people. That's all I care about."
DHR has the policy authority to get Shelton and Hackett together, but a department spokesman said, "With everything else that's been going on, I can't honestly say we have given this high priority." Adequate funds would make a solution simple, the spokesman said, but the same is true, he noted, of dozens of other problems.
Not to strike up the violins too loudly, but, really - what's a better use of funds than getting sick people to hospitals? If Sterling Hackett makes extra money as a result, so what? It's not as if he and his fellow "privates" aren't earning it.
And consider this: Friday, morning, the city's ambulances are scheduled to be equipped with a new radio system. It will link each ambulance with a doctor in the emergency room to which it is heading. The system has been two years in the planning, and will cost more than $20,000.
For the same money, across the same time period, Sterling Hackett could have carried more than 500 people to Washington hospitals.
"If a person needs an ambulance, he needs an ambulance," said Sterling Hackett. "He doesn't give a damn if it's a wheelbarrow with a siren on it."
We're well past the wheelbarrow stage, in both the public and private sectors. Now we need to get past the stage where hot lines ring only one way.