- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Fire officials say that half of the city’s reserve ambulance fleet has been restored after a weekend in which so many ambulances were out of service that paramedics responded to calls in sport utility vehicles and sedans.

Nine of the 18 reserve ambulances were back in service yesterday, said Alan Etter, a spokesman for the fire department. The rest were still being repaired.

During the weekend, more than half of the city’s 37 front-line ambulances were out of service for maintenance or repair, exhausting the reserves.

Paramedics without ambulances responded to emergencies in department-owned SUVs and Ford Crown Victorias usually driven by supervisors.

The department owns 10 additional ambulances, but they are held in abeyance for a catastrophic emergency.

Mr. Etter said the shortage during the weekend was a “coincidence” of a higher-than-normal call volume with ordinary repair and maintenance demands.

Fire officials also pointed out that the department’s repair shop is closed on weekends, as are the vendors who perform more serious repairs.

“This type of thing has not happened in a very long time,” Mr. Etter said. “We’re satisfied with our current fleet, [but] it did get a little thin there over the weekend.”

Kenneth Lyons, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3721, which represents the city’s paramedics, said the problem of ambulances breaking down is “not a rare occurrence.”

“This is what we deal with on a daily basis,” he said, “having units that are not in service or having to juggle units.”

Mr. Lyons said one contributing factor is that in recent years ambulances have been forced to travel longer distances at higher speeds performing cross-city transports when emergency rooms are full. He said that can cause accidents and greater wear and tear.

According to figures supplied by the department’s fleet maintenance division, the age of the ambulances is not a factor. Nine of the 37 front-line ambulances are 2004 models, 22 are 2003 models and six are 2001 models.

The department does not have specific guidelines for when to retire an ambulance. Instead, maintenance officials factor the age, the mileage and the wear and tear of the unit.

Once an ambulance is retired, it usually serves as a reserve unit. Of the 18 reserves, six are 2002 models, 10 are 2001 models and two are 2000 models.

Mr. Etter said the department is scheduled to take possession of two new ambulances in the fall. He said more units will be ordered in 2006 as part of a regular replacement schedule.

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