Widespread ambulance breakdowns brought on by high summer temperatures have overwhelmed the D.C. fire department — causing it to send 22 ambulances to other agency's mechanics for repairs and to outsource coverage of special events to private ambulance companies for the coming weeks, according to agency officials.
At a cost yet unknown by the city, private companies Lifestar Ambulance Service and American Medical Response will provide emergency medical service at Washington Nationals baseball games and events at Verizon Center.
"We're going to do it for a couple weeks, then evaluate," said Paul A. Quander Jr., deputy mayor for public safety and justice.
The outsourcing — which initially utilized ambulances from George Washington University — began Friday after air conditioning failed in numerous D.C. ambulances and the units had to be taken out of service for repairs, officials said.
"Anytime we get near 95 [degrees] or above, it could potentially be an issue for some of our older units," fire department spokesman Tim Wilson said. "We were putting reserve units in to supplement those units that were going down."
Thirty-nine ambulances are supposed to be available to respond to emergency calls in the District at all times, and after a series of breakdowns in the past agency heads promised to dedicate another four ambulances as reserve units that could immediately be put back on the streets in the case of a failure.
But the continuous breakdowns caused by the stress of the hot weather was "more than our shop could handle," Mr. Wilson said.
At one point over the weekend, only 37 ambulances were available to transport patients, he said.
The onslaught of repair work stacked up for the fire department's mechanics, and the department made arrangements to send 16 of the broken ambulances to the mechanic shop at the Department of Public Works and another six ambulances to DC Water for repairs, Mr. Wilson said. Since those 22 ambulances went down Friday, only five have been brought into service. The fire department could not provide data on the number of ambulances sent to and subsequently fixed by their own mechanics.
"This first heat wave has wrecked the fleet again," said Ed Smith, president of the local firefighters union, wondering how the department will survive the rest of the summer.
The breakdowns also meant that the department didn't have the extra ambulances it normally supplies to Nationals Park and Verizon Center during events. The department sought to outsource to the two private companies to ensure that four ambulances could man the baseball stadium during games and one ambulance could be at Verizon Center during events. Neither a spokesman for the fire department nor a spokesman for Mr. Quander could estimate the cost of outsourcing the units.
Speaking for fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe, Mr. Quander's spokesman, Keith St. Clair, said contractors are staffing the units and are in charge of providing medical care and transport on the ambulances.
The department has outsourced ambulances for large-scale events, such as the presidential inauguration, in the past, but neither officials and politicians nor union leadership could recall having to outsource units under such dire circumstances.
"I think it's a good move. On the other hand, we shouldn't be in this situation," D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said.
Although mechanics were left scrambling after the series of breakdowns, the problem is hardly new. Complaints about broken air conditioning systems — which have reportedly left ambulance interiors in the triple digits — surfaced in 2011 and broken systems were the subject of questioning during a D.C. Council committee hearing just a few months ago.
Chief Ellerbe faced tough questioning from council member Tommy Wells at a hearing in April over the condition of aging ambulances and whether the fleet would be able to stand up to high summer temperatures. At the time, the chief said the department was proactively inspecting and fixing units.
"Our mechanics are looking at every unit that comes down to the shop and attempting to address all of the air conditioning issues before the weather gets hot," Chief Ellerbe said at the time.
He later added, "I'm confident in our equipment and I'm confident in our personnel."
The department announced Tuesday that an outside company has begun an audit to examine its current fleet capacity and management practices. The audit costs more than $182,000 and results are expected in two months, officials said.
In coming weeks, the department is set to receive 13 new ambulances which could alleviate some of the stress on the older units. But union officials worry that without a proper apparatus replacement plan, these ambulances will also be quickly run down.
"The bottom line is it's just another sad chapter in a fire and EMS department that has gone bad," Mr. Smith said.
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