- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2001

The performance of the D.C. Fire Department, including ambulance response times, is deteriorating under Chief Ronnie Few, according to internal documents obtained by The Washington Times.
Even as it takes longer for ambulances to reach medical emergencies, Chief Few, quietly and without explanation, has lowered the standards, the documents show.
The public goal is to get Advanced Life Support (ALS) units, commonly referred to as ambulances, to critical calls within eight minutes 90 percent of the time, according to the "scorecard" Web site of Mayor Anthony A. Williams.
But the internal report shows Chief Fews target at 70 percent for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Next year, the target rises to 80 percent.
Despite the lower bar, the ambulances met their mark only 46 percent of the time during the first half of this fiscal year — Oct. 1, 2000, through March 31 — according to the most current data.
Ambulance response times have worsened too, from 15 minutes 42 seconds in fiscal year 2000 to 16 minutes 42 seconds halfway through this fiscal year. The goal remains at 10 minutes.
The six-page internal performance report, dubbed the "Front Burner," quantifies the increasing problems with ambulance response times that recently have been documented only in anecdotal media reports and complaints about the shuttering of D.C. General Hospital.
It also portrays a different agency than the one Chief Few publicly depicts and raises questions about his progress with promised reforms.
The documents also show the rates of fire-related injuries to firefighters and civilians, and civilian deaths and injuries, are far outstripping the years targets. The department aims to keep civilian deaths to five this fiscal year but already has reached that number at the halfway mark, compared with 14 civilian deaths in the previous fiscal year. To reach its target, the department must prevent any more deaths for the rest of the year.
The agency also is on the verge of failing to reduce civilian injures by 5 percent. The report shows 63 civilian injuries so far this year, compared with 69 recorded last fiscal year. To reach its goal, the agency can have no more than two more civilian injuries for the rest of the year.
Injuries to firefighters — 191 for the first six months of the fiscal year — are on pace to reach 382, far outstripping last years number of 272. The goal is a 5 percent reduction to 258.
The report also shows problems with building inspections. Officials conducted 5,015 inspections from October through March. If that pace continues, the department will fall far short of last years 22,983 inspections, as well as this years goal of 24,325.
The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department has long been troubled by underfunding, poor equipment and training, and low morale, especially after the deaths of three firefighters since 1997. Brief improvements under the leadership of interim Fire Chief Thomas N. Tippett appear to be slipping.
Besides the unannounced change to the response time goal, the report manifests other problems with fudged data. One measure of ambulance response times incorporates paramedic engine companies and "Rapid Response" vehicles.
Both types of vehicles, which have at least one paramedic, usually get to calls within seven minutes, but they cannot transport patients. One fire department source said including those units with the much-slower ambulances "is like comparing apples and oranges."
The most recent version of the report, dated May 3, provides a marker for the departments performance halfway through the fiscal year and outlines how problematic trends can become.
Some of the data, as incorporated into the departments "scorecard" posted on the Districts Web site, show Chief Few has met only one of four goals — to fill 120 firefighter vacancies.
Dr. Fernando Daniels, medical director of the Emergency Medical Services Division, said through a spokesman that response times in the report are based on "inaccurate data."
"On any given set of data, you can expect there can be a wide range of response times," said Fire Department spokesman Alan Etter. "Lots of things have an impact on that," such as emergencies on the Mall that take longer to reach.
The Metropolitan Police Department and the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services department later this year are scheduled to combine their 911 centers, "which they hope will increase the accuracy" of recording response times, Mr. Etter said.
The current system sometimes forces dispatchers to speculate when a call is dispatched or when an ambulance arrives, he said.
The head of the union for paramedics and emergency medical technicians yesterday said the slow response times seem correct, if not enhanced.
"I think its actually a lot worse, to be honest with you," said Kenneth Lyons, chairman of the American Federation of Government Employees Union Local 3721. "Right now, we just dont have the units, resources or the manpower to respond, and the engine companies cant fill that gap at all."
With D.C. General turning away more patients from its emergency room, ambulances must make longer trips to other facilities. That means fewer units are available and response times are increased, said Mr. Lyons, who works as a paramedic in the department.
The report also lacks data on some of the chiefs initiatives. It is not clear if those initiatives have yet to begin or if officials have failed to carry them out.
Some of the initiatives with no current data are: fire-safety training for senior citizen groups, fire station upgrades, in-service training and an "Adopt a School" program.
Chief Few began an initiative in Augusta, Ga., called the "Are You OK" program, in which an automated telephone system calls senior citizens once a day. If no one answers, medics are dispatched to check on the individual. The report shows that nobody in the District has participated in the program.


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