For nearly a year now, as District residents have become increasingly alarmed by the crisis with the city's 911 emergency service, Mayor Marion Barry, Fire Chief Theodore R. Coleman and others have promised improvement in the ambulance service. "Things will get better," we were told. "We're determined to make the changes necessary to improve the service," residents were repeatedly assured. But the problems continue.
In the past two years, nine persons have died after ambulances failed to reach them in an acceptable amount of time. The most recent death occurred two weeks ago, when a Northeast man died after an ambulance driver became lost and took 40 minutes to find the home.
Although no official link has been made between the deaths and the delays, make no mistake about it, the game of politics is costing lives. No one has the right to do that.
Barry has resisted any suggestion to fire Coleman. Barry's aides have pointed out that the mayor believes that problems with the ambulance service have been around a long time and can be traced to managers that preceded Coleman. Moreover, Barry knows that the Fire Department is a tangled skein of racial conflict and that discontent with Coleman has in part been fomented by the firefighters union, whose most visible leaders are white.
However, Coleman's problems escalated dramatically last week when the city's Committee on Emergency Medical Services voted that it had "no confidence" in the fire chief's ability to manage the ambulance service. The committee was responding not only to the most recent ambulance crisis but also to a loss of confidence in the service by many residents. "How many people have to die?" the committee was asked by one man, who said he is infected with the AIDS virus and is fearful that he may have to depend on the ambulance service to save his life. That's a disgraceful state of affairs.
The point is this: It is time for promises to end, reports and investigations to come to a halt and action to be taken. It's one thing for Barry to be obdurate about protecting Coleman, but quite another to put residents' lives in jeopardy.
It seems to me that the mayor's highest duty is to get the ambulance service out of Coleman's control. The next question is how to do it -- by removing Coleman, or by removing the ambulance service from the Fire Department?
The chorus calling for Coleman's resignation is getting loud. In its editorial pages, The Washington Post has suggested that Coleman step down. Dr. Howard Champion, director of the Washington Hospital Center's trauma unit MedStar, said the Committee on Emergency Medical Services was acting "particularly wimpish" by only sending a vote of no confidence to Coleman. Even some of Barry's senior aides have suggested that Barry fire Coleman.
It seems to me that if Barry is interested in remaining loyal to Coleman, he still can address the problem by removing the ambulance service from the Fire Department, as D.C. Council members Jim Nathanson and H.R. Crawford have suggested. Nathanson urged the mayor last week to issue an executive order placing the ambulance service under the control of the D.C. Public Health Commission.
Crawford submitted a bill last year that would do the same thing. Although council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark, who heads the Committee on the Judiciary, opposes the move, the Crawford-Nathanson suggestion seems to make good sense.
The emergency ambulance service should be controlled by the Public Health Commission because it is a medical service, and it should not have been under the Fire Department's control in the first place. Nathanson acknowledges that the Fire Department, even before Coleman's appointment, neglected the needs of the ambulance service. "No section, which like the ambulance service is a dead end, whose leaders cannot move upward in the Fire Department, will ever attract the high quality of leadership needed to overcome the years of mismanagement," Nathanson said last week. In other words, the ambulance service may have the same problems if another fire chief is brought in to solve them.
By contrast, the Public Health Commission has a good management track record, and Dr. Reed V. Tuckson, the public health commissioner, has gained a good reputation for his leadership of that department. Under Nathanson's plan, the ambulance service still could use Fire Department facilities; it simply would be managed by the health services in much the same way other agencies cooperate in sharing city facilities.
Barry should not hold on to a person who is incompetent because of the color of that person's skin. The ambulance problem itself is horrendous and is compounded by the other problems in the Fire Department.
It's time for Barry to act. Lives are endangered, people are scared and some are dying. Human life is more important than politics.