D.C. officials on Tuesday announced improvements to the fire department that include the purchase of 30 new ambulances, the ongoing training of 60 firefighter recruits and the hiring of nine paramedics.
But the hiring of the single-role paramedics, which Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe said the department will continue until it reaches "full strength," runs contrary to the No. 1 recommendation made by a task force assembled to improve emergency medical services after the 2006 beating death of a New York Times journalist.
The task force, convened after the death of journalist David E. Rosenbaum near his Northwest home, recommended in 2007 that "All operational employees shall be cross-trained at basic levels of EMS, fire prevention, fire suppression, hazardous materials and technical rescue" — a stipulation not required of the new paramedics and a significant shift in a long-held city policy to unify the missions of medics and firefighters.
At Tuesday's news conference, Mayor Vincent C. Gray deferred questions about departure from the recommendations.
"I'm going to let the chief handle that," Mr. Gray said.
Pressed on the issue — because Mr. Gray served on the Rosenbaum task force while chairman of the D.C. Council and Chief Ellerbe did not — the mayor grew testy.
"It doesn't matter if he was on the task force; it's who is running the operation now, OK?" Mr. Gray said, walking away for a photo opportunity in front of two refurbished ambulances that were on display.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who also served on the task force, bristled at the abrupt dismissal of the monthslong effort by a wide range of stakeholders to correct what had been persistent dysfunction within the agency.
"Rosenbaum was a seminal moment in EMS response," Mr. Mendelson said. "It was comprehensive examination of EMS and it concluded that policy was the right policy."
He said the deviation from the recommendation — made after an investigation found that a neglectful and botched emergency medical response contributed to Rosenbaum's death — was a quick fix to a substantial problem.
"I think the department is trying to put as good a face as they can on a problem for them," Mr. Mendelson said. "That problem is that they've allowed a huge number of vacancies to occur."
If hiring of single-role paramedics is to become the new norm, as Chief Ellerbe suggested, Mr. Mendelson said he believes the change requires legislative approval.
The fire department has struggled recently with both staffing shortages and apparatus failures, but the fire chief Tuesday pointed to the new hiring plan and a future apparatus replacement schedule as the sign of a new day at the beleaguered agency.
"We're no longer at a tipping point. We are now in a position to turn the corner," Chief Ellerbe said. "The department is rebuilding itself."
The chief said the change to allow the hiring of single-role paramedics was made to more quickly fill agency vacancies with candidates who might not otherwise consider work with the department if they were required to cross-train.
"Some folks who are paramedics don't want to be firefighters," he said.
But in the future, those who do want to become firefighters will be given the opportunity to transition over.
The firefighters union echoed Mr. Mendelson's sentiments, with union President Ed Smith calling the measures a "stopgap" and questioning the efficiency of creating a hiring process for a special skill set.
"We don't have to reinvent the wheel," Mr. Smith said.
With new hires and equipment on the way, Chief Ellerbe announced that he also would be resubmitting a plan that alters the deployment of ambulances on city streets. The plan, which was rejected once by the D.C. Council, would call for more paramedics to work during hours with heavy call volume but would leave none on ambulances overnight.
"I think it was rejected because there may have been some concerns about our ability to provide the infrastructure to support the plan," Chief Ellerbe said.
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