The acting head of the city's troubled ambulance service said yesterday that emergency medical technicians will be required to have a high school education in light of the failure last week of 14 District ambulance workers to pass a national exam that would have certified them as intermediate paramedics.

Assistant Fire Chief Maurice D. Kilby, speaking at the first news conference since his appointment last month, also announced improvements to ambulance service working conditions and plans for the bureau.

Kilby said the District had dropped the requirement for emergency medical technicians -- the lowest classification of ambulance workers -- to have a high school diploma or General Educational Development certificate, and "it's been a problem" in finding a qualified pool of applicants to take the intermediate paramedic exam.

Officials have said the 14 failures raise questions about the competency of all ambulance workers because medics sent to advanced paramedic training have at least four years' experience and are supposed to be the cream of the crop in the city's Emergency Ambulance Bureau.

In recent months, the city's ambulance service has come under heavy criticism after reports of ambulances that are slow to arrive, drivers who get lost on the way and dispatchers who argue with callers.

Kilby said he is not concerned that all 14 applicants flunked the national qualifiying exam, which included a written exam and performance on emergency care methods. "This happens most of the time," Kilby said. "They have the opportunity to take the exam three times."

But nationwide, 40 percent of the people taking the test for the first time pass, according to Midge Moreau, chairwoman of the Paramedic Review Board that reviews the registry results and certifies all the city ambulance workers.

The applicants were chosen through a four-step selection process. Fourteen of the 20 selected passed the 10-week University of the District of Columbia local training course, and were allowed to take the the National Registry exam.

During the news conference, Kilby announced that ambulance bureau workers will work no longer than 14 hours a shift, barring severe weather or an officially designated emergency. He said the ambulance division has hired a stress management counselor for its employees, added five fully equipped ambulances as backup units and will assign two EMTs to each rescue squad.

To allow ambulances to return to service as quickly as possible, D.C. hospitals have agreed to expedite the admittance process for patients, limiting to 15 minutes the time that ambulance personnel spend at hospitals, Kilby said.

With the exception of trauma, burn and obstetrical patients, all patients will be transported to the closest appropriate hospital, eliminating the "hospital of choice" on lower priority cases, Kilby said.

He also said a nationwide search for an experienced civilian to lead the service has yielded several candidates and a director will be named this month.

"We're reconstructing even with an acting head," said Lt. Ted Holmes, spokesman for the ambulance bureau.