Skeptical D.C. Council members demanded answers from the city's fire chief Thursday on what they said were serious and systemic problems with the department in the wake of a string of failed responses to emergency calls.
For almost three hours, Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe and Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul A. Quander Jr. answered a barrage of questions on the state of the department's fleet and staffing as council members tried to ascertain whether the department under the current leadership is capable of meeting the city's emergency services needs.
"Management is absolutely accountable for the problems of this agency, and it goes back to making sure they have the equipment they need to do their jobs," said council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat and chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety that held Thursday's hearing. "I am concerned we are operating at a thin level. They claim that it's enough but there is really no gap for any slippage here."
During several sharp exchanges, department leadership rebuffed characterizations that the issues were widespread, with Mr. Quander laying out plans to address what he referred to as the "isolated" incidents, and the chief adding that he believes the "department's fleet remains in an acceptable state of readiness for potential major events in the city."
Although the department has 111 ambulances, 53 are currently out of service for repairs or replacements, Chief Ellerbe testified. In addition, the number of paramedics working for the department is down and Mr. Quander acknowledged that more need to be hired, though he denied any shortage.
During his testimony, Chief Ellerbe at times appeared uncomfortable and frequently paused before answering questions. At one point, he admitted that for a year he had been working from an outdated list of available vehicles. The chief also apologized for delays that three patients — including a police officer, a stroke victim and a man who died from a heart attack — endured within the past three months when they called the department for aid.
"I would like to offer my sincere apology to the patients and families affected," Chief Ellerbe said.
Mr. Quander pointed to the New Year's Day incident, during which a man died from a heart attack after waiting 30 minutes for an ambulance to arrive, as an "outlier" that occurred when a high number of employees called out sick, leaving enough employees to staff only 28 instead of the usual 39 ambulances that would have been on duty that night. Chief Ellerbe laid blame for the delay in response to a March 5 crash that injured a police officer on employees who did not follow proper protocol, forcing an ambulance from Prince George's County eventually to respond to the scene.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who until this year headed the judiciary committee, seemed skeptical that the problems were isolated.
"Rarely is it about one person. It is about a system and the lack of quality control," Mr. Mendelson said, later appearing incredulous that the chief had such inaccurate information about the condition of his fleet.
About 15 people testified during the hearing, including the police department union president — who criticized both department and city leadership for failing to take full responsibility for mistakes —and the brother of New York Times journalist David E. Rosenbaum, who died in 2006 after first-responders who found him did not correctly assess or treat injuries he sustained in a beating and robbery. The incident prompted the formation of a task force that made recommendations for improving emergency medical services in the city.
Marcus Rosenbaum said he thinks emergency medical care has improved since the investigations and reports spurred by his brother's death, but he worries that recent issues show the department's advances are being squandered.
"I fear it is backsliding and there are now more problems than there were a couple of years ago," Mr. Rosenbaum said.
Chief Ellerbe used the hearing as an opportunity to push forward his ambulance redeployment plan, which was submitted to the D.C. Council for consideration Wednesday night. The plan would reduce the number of ambulances providing critical care overnight, instead making additional advanced life-support ambulances available to respond to calls during busier evening hours. He also touted several department initiatives — from giving more supervisors access to real-time ambulance deployment data to actively recruiting more paramedics.
"How is it that we've gotten to this point where we've had a succession of highly publicized events that have revealed these problems?" Mr. Mendelson asked during one contentious exchange.
"Sometimes it takes an incident that is out of the ordinary to change the way things are handled," Chief Ellerbe said.
Mr. Mendelson pressed further.
"Didn't that incident occur on January 6, 2006?" he said, alluding to the date that Rosenbaum was attacked.
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