"Mobile 25. You've got a run." The voice over the intercom system drowned out the television in Engine Company Four's dining room.
D.C. Fire Department Paramedics Rose Queen and Robert Powell had just sat down to breakfast three hours into their early morning shift. The meal that day was eggs, sausage, potatoes, pancakes, toast and black coffee.
Powell and Queen jumped from their seats and headed for their ambulance. Their food was untouched.
This is a typical scene for any of the 112 ambulance drivers who drive the city's 10 ambulances 24 hours a day every day of the year.
It is also typical for the drivers to arrive at the given address and find no one there, or some one who is not in real need of emergency medicine or transportation.
Deputy Chief Joseph R. Shelton, who is in charge of the ambulance service for the city, says that only 4 per cent of the estimated 76,000 yearly runs are true emergencies. He cites examples of ambulances being called by lonely people just wanting attention, or people calling for an ambulance when all they need is a ride to a clinic or a doctor's appointment.
Powell and Queen find it hard to define an average work day. They are busiest during the first week of the month when welfare checks arrive, and they are busier on Friday and Saturday nights than on other shifts.
On one recent Saturday evening, Queen was driving, alternating the siren between a wobble and a wail. Traffic was light and the ambulance arrived on the 1300 block of Irving Street NW a few minutes after 7 o'clock. A number of police squad cars marked the location. A policeman waved the ambulance to the front yard of a rowhouse. At first the crowd of neighbors and children blocked the view of a man lying on his back on the front steps.
They parted as the paramedics scrambled from the ambulance carrying oversized convas bags buldging with bandages. The man groaned and looked skyward. His head, neck and bicep had been slashed. Another man tried to mop some of the blood away with a blue bath towel.
The crowd formed a circle around the ambulance crew and the injured man. Children darted up to take a closer look and then ran back into the crowd. A woman off to one side yelled that her arm was broken.
Powell and Queen spoke softly to the man and applied bandages to his cuts. They asked his name.
"Now, Mr. Mitchell. You take it easy. We're going to take you to the hospital. Is there anyone here you want to come with you?" asked Queen.
Mitchell was helped to the ambulance. As he was assisted onto the stretcher inside, a woman with two children came forward. She pointed at her left arm, which hung at a strange angle.
Powell spoke with her briefly and then got an airsplint from his supply bag. He placed the ballon-like splint on her arm. As he blew into it, the crowd pressed in close to see what he was doing. The police told everyone to stand back. The woman pulled two small children around so Powell could look at them. The boy's shoulder was bloody. The 4-year-old girl had a bloody mouth. Queen picked up the girl and cradled her against her shoulder. The child was crying.
The woman and boy climbed into the ambulance. Queen climbed in behind them still holding the girl. A reserve officer was assigned to ride with them to the hospital.
"No, I don't get involved," Queen said. "I'm not sure what happened back there on Irving Street. It may sound mean but that's the way it is. You do your job well and you leave satisfied. And that's it."
"Yes" said Powell. "You always say you're going to check on folks but there are so many. Sometimes I feel bad about not feeling bad about people being hurt. I think everybody does in the beginning. You just can't feel everything. But you know, the kids will really do you in."
That Saturday night was considered a slow night. Only nine runs had been logged when Powell and Queen signed off at midnight. They drove back to Sherman and Euclid NW just in time to turn Mobile 25 over to the next crew, who rushed off to answer a call. A young girl had been assulted somewhere in Northwest Washington.