- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Nearly three-fourths of the D.C. fire department’s ambulance fleet had to be pulled from the streets for repairs during a July heat wave that wreaked havoc on the units’ air conditioning systems, according to new data provided by the department.

A total of 67 ambulances required some type of mechanical service from July 19 to 26, with 22 ambulances requiring service more than two times, according to fire department spokesman Tim Wilson. The department currently maintains 94 ambulances, though not all are functional.

The majority of the ambulances were repaired and returned to service within hours, Mr. Wilson noted, but even as temperatures have dropped the department has struggled to get all its ambulances back up and running. As of Wednesday, 14 ambulances were still off the street for repairs.

The dearth of functional ambulances has led the city to outsource emergency medical services coverage for some special events — to the tune of more than $50,000 so far.

The majority of the ambulance breakdowns were brought on by failing air conditioning units — an issue that has caused headaches for the department when temperatures have spiked during the past several summers.

When ambulances are running nonstop and without reserve units available to relieve them, they can easily overheat in the summer, firefighters union President Ed Smith said.

“The only way to alleviate that is additional units,” Mr. Smith said.

Thirty-nine ambulances are supposed to be available to respond to emergency calls in the District at all times, and after a series of breakdowns in the past agency heads promised to dedicate at least four ambulances as reserve units that could immediately be put back on the streets in the case of a failure.

With dozens of vehicles out for repairs, the department was on the verge of not being able to keep enough units on the street and opted to outsource its contractual agreements to provide emergency medical services at Washington Nationals baseball games and events at Verizon Center. This week the department was able to put a dollar figure on the cost of the outsourcing.

Coverage at Nationals Park, which includes four ambulances and staffing from Lifestar Ambulance Service, costs the District $4,100 per game, Mr. Wilson said. The Nationals played their 11th home game on Wednesday night since the outsourcing, costing the city an estimated $45,100. Coverage of events at the Verizon Center — which only requires one ambulance per event — costs $900 per event through the American Medical Response. The estimated price tag for coverage at eight events thus far, including concerts and Washington Mystics basketball games, is $7,200.

From July 19 to 21, the District also outsourced coverage of Nationals games to George Washington University through a mutual-aid agreement that did not incur any cost.

Officials remain uncertain how long the outsourcing initiative will continue, with Paul A. Quander Jr., deputy mayor for public safety and justice, saying at the end of July that the District will continue to outsource for a “couple weeks” and then re-evaluate.

Complicating the department’s efforts to get ambulance service back on track is a delay in the delivery of the city’s newly purchased units.

“We were actually hoping that we were going to have some of the new ones in hand on Monday,” said Keith St. Clair, spokesman for Mr. Quander.

Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe has made at least three trips to the Maryland dealership manufacturing the ambulances in an effort to speed up the process, Mr. St. Clair said. Department officials initially said they intend to purchase 13 new ambulances by the end of this fiscal year, and recent reports upped the purchase order to 33, but Mr. St. Clair said it is still undecided how many ambulances the department will buy through the agreement.

Whatever the final number of ambulances purchased, Mr. Smith said it will be vital to craft an apparatus replacement schedule and stick to it so the department won’t face the same problems later on when these vehicles age.

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