The summer of 2013 delivered one public relations punch after another to the D.C. fire department. Top officials admitted they didn’t know how many vehicles they had. Ambulances were catching fire idling at emergency calls. Delays getting patients to hospitals seemed routine.
On Aug. 8 of that year, an ambulance assigned to President Obama’s motorcade ran out of gas on the South Lawn of the White House.
The labor union blamed a faulty gas gauge. The District blamed a paramedic — Darlene Nelson, then a 13-year veteran — for failing to fill the 50-gallon tank. A top aide to the then-mayor suggested firefighters were sabotaging their equipment to embarrass the fire chief. The union countered that the District’s fire department couldn’t keep the city’s most important resident safe because of faulty equipment.
Last month, more than two years after the dispute, an administrative judge with the D.C. Office of Employee Appeals weighed in and sided with the paramedic.
He overturned a 120-hour suspension, ordered back pay and chastised the District for failing to fix faulty gas gauges on several ambulances. The judge said that the District was negligent, not Nelson, and chided “embarrassed management” for shifting the blame for its failures onto an employee during a period of negative news coverage.
For Edward C. Smith, the president of the firefighter’s union, the November ruling is one in a string of findings that clears firefighters and paramedics.
The police had ruled that the ambulance fires were because of mechanical failures, not sabotage, and the inspector general said the then-fire chief counted fire engines rusting in out-of-state trash heaps as part of a reserve fleet on standby for emergencies. The ruling in the August 2013 incident at the White House, said Smith, turned out “just like everything else. I’m not surprised at all. With all the blame we took during that period, we’ve now been vindicated at every level.”
Nelson, who is vice president of Local 3721 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents District paramedics, said she was “smeared” by the former administration.
“The judge found that the department tried to blame me for a systemic problem,” Nelson said. Her partner that day also was suspended, but she accepted her punishment and testified against Nelson at her disciplinary hearing. Of the charges, Nelson, said, “the chief got embarrassed, and it became a blame game.”
Nelson said there are still maintenance problems with ambulances and fire engines, including clogged air filters, broken heaters and fuel gauges that still don’t work. She said she is hopeful that the new fire chief, Gregory M. Dean, can make changes.
“I believe the administration is addressing it but doesn’t yet have a hold on it,” Nelson said.
Dean, in a statement, said he respects the decision to reverse Nelson’s punishment and noted that it occurred before he was hired.
“Since then, we have improved the process for reporting and resolving vehicle break-down and maintenance issues,” Dean said in his statement. “Daily updates on our vehicles give us an opportunity to resolve issues as quickly as possible.”
Dean also said that the department has hired new employees and supervisors in the fleet maintenance division and is looking for a fleet manager. He described improvements in that area as “an ongoing work in progress.”
Kenneth B. Ellerbe, who resigned as fire chief in July 2014, said regarding Nelson, “We made a decision based on rules and regulations.” He declined to comment further.
The stranded ambulance on the White House lawn drew national attention and, coupled with pictures of other ambulances on fire, painted a portrait of a shoddily run department. District officials at the time placed full blame on the paramedics.
The department’s chief spokesman, Tim Wilson, said at the time that the department did not know the ambulance’s gas gauge was broken. He called the incident “a clear example that people aren’t consistent with the performance of their duties. That definitely poses a problem for the administration in this fire department.”
But the administrative law judge, Joseph E. Lim, debunked that statement, saying that District officials failed to accept blame for putting equipment they knew was defective onto the streets. He said in his ruling that one top fire official testified at Nelson’s appeal hearing that three ambulances had faulty gauges and admitted maintenance records were in such disarray there was no way to be sure of the extent of the problem. Repairs backlogs meant ambulances with faulty equipment were left on the streets for months. Another official said faulty gauges had been a problem as far back as the 1990s.
Wilson, who remains the fire department spokesman, this week declined to address the statement he made in 2013.
According to the judge’s ruling, Nelson put gas in the ambulance on Aug. 7, 2013. She testified that “the fuel pump quickly shut off with a click, which indicated to her that the tank must now be full.” The faulty fuel gauge meant it was impossible to get a true reading.
The paramedic said at her hearing that she checked the logs the morning of Aug. 8 and noted that the previous shift had run only two emergency calls. She assumed the tank was almost full, and headed to the White House motorcade.
Fire officials testified at the hearing that the paramedic should have topped off the tank, knowing that the gauge was faulty, and because she was about to help protect the president.
Lim, the administrative judge, wrote that the faulty gauge on this ambulance, and on others, had been reported to officials, who he said “either took their time before fixing the gauges, or, at least in this instance, failed to fix the problem.”
Nelson is back on Paramedic 1 — the ambulance that rides in White House motorcades.