- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 10, 2013

The head of the D.C. firefighters’ union says a plan to keep two fully stocked, reserve ambulances ready to be put on the street in case others have mechanical problems is too little, too late.

Union President Edward Smith said he was glad to hear the reserve units will now be available in the event mechanical problems cause ambulance shortages, but he believes more are needed.

“Two’s not going to be enough. Two is a drop in the bucket,” said Mr. Smith, president of the D.C. Fire Fighters Association. “It makes perfect sense to have two units stocked and ready to go. Why wasn’t it done sooner?”

The plan was announced Friday — days after several ambulances had mechanical problems and weren’t available to transport a D.C. police officer injured in a hit-and-run to a hospital.

But public safety officials, who relayed the news at a bizarre news conference outside fire department headquarters in Northwest on Friday afternoon, insisted it was a coincidence that the plan was rolled out after dispatchers had to call on neighboring Prince George’s County to transport the officer.

“They were planning to roll this out. It just happens to coincide with this event,” Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul A. Quander Jr. said.

Mr. Quander and two deputy fire chiefs did most of the talking at the news event as Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe stood by, for the most part silent until he was pressed by reporters to speak.

“I think people should have confidence in our department because people have been transported,” Chief Ellerbe said, referring to several recent instances when D.C. ambulances were unavailable to respond to calls for service.

Mr. Quander, who has pledged to conduct a formal investigation into the incident to determine why ambulances were unavailable, said officials had narrowed their focus to the activities of three ambulance crews that were unavailable to provide transport on Tuesday night.

“There are at least three units that I am focusing on that may have went out of service inappropriately,” he said.

Ten of the 39 ambulances working that night were unavailable for transport at about 6:30 p.m. when a Metropolitan Police Department officer on a motor scooter was struck by an apparent drunken driver. Officials said at least four of the 10 ambulances went out of service due to mechanical issues close to a 7 p.m. shift change, a peculiarity that investigators initially regarded as suspicious. But Mr. Quander said Friday that none of the three units now under the microscope was s among those that reported mechanical issues.

“If there is responsibility at management, at supervision, or at the lowest level, everyone will be held accountable,” Mr. Quander said.

Absent from the news conference was Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, who sat in a squad car parked directly across the street from fire department headquarters for the entirety of the event. Emerging only after all fire officials had retreated back inside headquarters, Chief Lanier provided a brief update on Officer Sean Hickman’s condition before heading inside the Grimke Building, headquarters of the fire and emergency services department.

“An officer that was injured as badly as he is, and under the circumstances under which he was injured, of course that’s a big deal for us,” Chief Lanier said. “I’m really just trying to get my department through it right now.”

While a D.C. paramedic arrived via fire engine within eight minutes of the call to the scene of the hit-and-run crash that left Officer Hickman with multiple leg fractures, it was 18 minutes until a Prince George’s County ambulance arrived and about 30 minutes until the officer was transported.