The D.C. fire department now has two fully-stocked, reserve ambulances ready to be put on the street in case others have mechanical problems — a new tactic meant to prevent an incident such as occurred Tuesday, when several ambulances had mechanical problems and none were available to transport a police officer injured in a hit-and-run to a hospital.
But public safety officials, who relayed the news at a bizarre news conference outside fire department headquarters Friday afternoon, insisted it was a coincidence that the plan was rolled out just two days after dispatchers had to call on neighboring Prince George’s County to transport the officer.
“They were planning to roll this out. It just happens to coincide with this event,” Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul A. Quander Jr. said.
Mr. Quander and two deputy fire chiefs did most of the talking as Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe stood by, for the most part silent until he was pressed by reporters to speak.
“I think people should have confidence in our department because people have been transported,” Chief Ellerbe said, referring to several recent instances when D.C. ambulances were unavailable to respond to calls for service.
Friday marked the first time fire department leadership has spoken publicly on Tuesday’s events.
Mr. Quander, who has pledged to conduct a formal investigation into the incident to determine why ambulances were unavailable, said officials have narrowed their focus to the activities of three ambulance crews that were unavailable to provide transport on Tuesday night.
“There are at least three units that I am focusing on that may have went out of service inappropriately,” he said.
Ten of the 39 ambulances working that night were unavailable for transport at about 6:30 p.m. when a Metropolitan Police Department officer on a motor scooter was struck by an apparent drunken driver. Officials said at least four of the 10 ambulances went out of service due to mechanical issues close to a 7 p.m. shift change, a peculiarity that investigators initially regarded as suspicious, But Mr. Quander said Friday that none of the three units now under the microscope were among those that reported mechanical issues.
“If there is responsibility at management, at supervision, or at the lowest level, everyone will be held accountable,” Mr. Quander said.
Absent from the press conference was Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, who sat in a squad car parked directly across the street from fire department headquarters for the entirety of the event. Emerging only after all fire officials had retreated back inside headquarters, Chief Lanier provided a brief update on Officer Sean Hickman’s condition before heading inside the Grimke Building.
“An officer that was injured as badly as he is, and under the circumstances under which he was injured, of course that’s a big deal for us,” Chief Lanier said. “I’m really just trying to get my department through it right now.”
While a D.C. paramedic arrived via fire engine within eight minutes of the call to the scene of the hit-and-run crash that left Officer Hickman with multiple leg fractures, it was 18 minutes until a Prince George’s County ambulance arrived and about 30 minutes until the officer was transported.
Union officials have pointed to longstanding maintenance, staffing and communications issues as possible aggravating circumstances in Tuesday’s incident.
Firefighters union president Edward Smith said he was glad to hear that two reserve units are now stocked and ready to be put to use, but he believes more are needed.
“Two’s not going to be enough. Two is a drop in the bucket,” said Mr. Smith, president of the D.C. Fire Fighters Association. “It makes perfect sense to have two units stocked and ready to go. Why wasn’t it done sooner?”
Chief Ellerbe has previously advocated for a change in ambulance staffing arrangements — a controversial plan met with skepticism by the fire union and some national emergency medical services experts — that would take all paramedic units off the streets during overnight hours in order to beef up the number of ambulances working during busier daytime hours.
Officials invoked Tuesday’s incident as fodder for endorsement of a plan that would put more ambulances on the street in peak hours.
“This is one of the reasons we have proposed the EMS redeployment plan,” Chief Ellerbe said, noting that under his plan 45 ambulances would have been available at the time of the crash. “We know we are at a tipping point in terms of providing service to the community. … It time for us to make a change in the way we deliver service.”