Based on information provided by D.C. Fire Department officials, a Dec. 26 story incorrectly reported that an unusually large number of ambulance workers had called in sick for the Christmas Day shift, causing a shortage of ambulances. Ambulance bureau documents show that the number of workers on sick leave for that shift, four, was not unusually large. A fire department spokesman now says the ambulance shortage was due to "management error." (Published 1/5/91)

Seven of 21 ambulances scheduled for duty in the District on Christmas morning were not staffed by the start of the 7 a.m. shift because an unusual number of ambulance workers called in sick, fire department officials said last night.

Thomas McCaffrey, assistant D.C. fire chief for operations, said several off-duty firefighters were called in to offset the staff shortage, and some on-duty firefighters were shifted to ambulance duty. In all, 16 of the 52 ambulance positions were unfilled yesterday morning, an ambulance official said.

All but one of the 26 ambulances scheduled for the afternoon shift were operating by noon, and by 5 p.m. all fire and ambulance services were fully staffed, McCaffrey said.

No major problems with ambulance or fire service were reported because of the staffing problems, and department officials said the absences did not appear to be organized or prearranged.

Ambulance workers blamed the shortage of workers on inadequate hiring and injury-related absences, but fire officials said the workers themselves are at fault.

"It's a continuing problem on major holidays," said Deputy Chief Dennis Boatman, the senior fire official on duty yesterday. "It falls back on the firefighting division to pick up the slack."

The absenteeism prompted an afternoon meeting among McCaffrey; Maurice Kilby, the acting fire chief; and Danny Mott, deputy director of ambulance services.

Lt. Thomas N. Tippett, president of Local 36 of the D.C. Firefighters Association, called the number of absences "an embarrassment" to the department.

"Obviously everyone wants to be home for Christmas. But when it's your turn to work, you work," Tippett said. "These ambulance guys are famous for {calling in sick}, and they get away with it. And that puts the burden on us."

In an effort to staff the ambulances, one firefighter from each of the city's four heavy-duty rescue squads -- normally staffed by five people -- was assigned to ambulance duty yesterday afternoon. Sgt. Kim I. Mattox, who was in charge of rescue squad No. 2 yesterday, said such transfers hurt firefighters' performance and morale.

"It affects everything from being able to make rescues to department efficiency," Mattox said.

City ambulance services have come under fire in recent years because of a high rate of turnover in personnel, poor response time and inadequate numbers of working ambulances.

The service was separated from the fire department in 1987 in an attempt to solve these problems, then reintegrated into the department last fall because the poor performance and low morale persisted.

When the second reorganization was announced in April, Mayor Marion Barry said he would appoint a physician specializing in emergency medicine to replace outgoing ambulance services director John M. Cavenagh. Although Cavenagh resigned Oct. 1, the city has not named a successor.

A veteran paramedic who asked not to be identified said morale among ambulance workers has eroded to the point where drivers and emergency medical technicians have no qualms about calling in sick on holidays.

"We'd have no problem if everyone just pulled their weight," the paramedic said. "But they don't."