- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 4, 2002

The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department will scrap a 3-year-old program that put paramedics on fire engines to deliver emergency medical care before ambulances could respond.
The decision to disband what had been considered a successful program threatens plans to unify the fire and EMS divisions and is likely to delay delivery of critical care to neighborhoods served by the six paramedic engine companies.
"This is scaling back on the level of care in the community," said Lt. Ray Sneed, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association. "We are not operating this program on the needs of the community; we're operating it on the needs of the budget. And I think that is the wrong approach."
Beginning Dec. 15, the 15 paramedics assigned to fire engines will be reassigned to ambulances to cut overtime costs, city officials said.
Margret Nedelkoff Kellems, D.C. deputy mayor for public safety and justice, said the move not only will save money, but also help stabilize ambulance response times by bolstering the undermanned EMS staff.
"If I have a finite number of EMS resources, I'd like them on transport units before I'd like them on fire engines," Mrs. Kellems said.
In other cost-cutting moves, the department will put 15 of its 16 fire inspectors back on the streets after a seven-day refresher course in firefighting, leaving inspection duties to on-duty firefighters.
Additionally, there will be a consolidation of crew at Engine 1, which currently houses separate crews to operate its fire engine and its ladder truck. The crew will respond to emergencies in the firetruck during the day and in the ladder truck at night.
A citywide budget shortfall of $323 million has forced the 1,920-member fire department to trim more than $7 million from its projected $130 million fiscal 2003 budget. A constant source of overspending has been the EMS, which has relied heavily on overtime personnel to keep units on the streets.
Acting Fire Chief Adrian Thompson proposed cutting the paramedic engine companies and the fire prevention division to avoid the "drastic measure" of consolidation at more companies, Mrs. Kellems said.
Chief Thompson was not available for comment yesterday.
In pulling paramedics from the engine companies, the city is abandoning a signature initiative of Mayor Anthony A. Williams. One of his four "scorecard" goals for the fire department has been to increase the number of paramedic engine companies.
The program began in December 1999 with paramedics in two engine companies, increasing to six by 2000. The mayor aimed for 12 paramedic engine companies by September 2002 and 20 by September 2003, with an ultimate goal of placing paramedics in all 33 of the department's fire companies.
The engines don't transport patients, but units carrying a paramedic can begin administering advanced life support five to seven minutes before an ambulance arrives.
The paramedics also respond with the engines to fires. They are trained to work with firefighting equipment and support firefighters on the scene but do not enter burning buildings.
Because of the shortage of paramedics, the department has not increased the number of paramedic engine companies and has let staffing levels languish in those that exist.
None of the paramedic engine companies has enough medics to staff all four shifts. Only 15 medics are in the program, which requires at least 24.
Mrs. Kellems said Mr. Williams still believes in the program and would like to restore it.
Yesterday, medics riding the fire engines expressed anger with the decision. They said that they were promised to be among the first absorbed in a unified service, adding that for three years they have walked a fine line between being uniformed firefighters and civilian medics.
Hostility remains between members of the two groups, who are represented by different unions and compete for the same budgetary resources.
"We've supported the department on this because we thought it was the right thing to do, but we're not being supported by the chief or by this administration," one paramedic said. "We've proven ourselves able to provide a high level of prehospital care in a quick amount of time, compared to the transport units. We've been able to make a difference."
Mrs. Kellems said unification of the department is still a goal but not at the cost of services. "This has no bearing on [unifying the department]. The department has limited resources to serve its citizens, and it needs to make the most of them," she said.

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