- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The D.C. Fire Department is boosting the number of first responders on city streets by adding 10 ambulances during day shifts to address a rising number of calls for service.

Between the hours of 11 a.m. and 11 p.m., the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services department will increase the number of available ambulances from 39 to 49, according to a plan announced by Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration on Tuesday.

There’s concern the city’s beleaguered ambulance fleet won’t be able to keep up with the demand of having 49 ambulances on the street at one time. But union officials support this plan over one devised by the prior fire chief that took ambulances off the streets overnight in order to add additional units during the day.

“You’re not robbing Peter to pay Paul. This is 10 additional units instead of losing units,” said D.C. Firefighters Association president Ed Smith. “Any relief in the system is welcomed without stealing from preexisting resources.”

The D.C. Council quashed a plan proposed by former Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe in 2013 that would have pulled paramedics from 14 ambulances between 1 a.m. and 7 a.m. and instead had them available for calls during busier hours from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. District law requires that the council approve any “major changes in the manner” of the department’s services, but this time around officials don’t believe the changes are substantial enough to require council approval.

“No members of the council said, ‘Put the breaks on this, we need to approve this,’” said Ms. Bowser’s spokesman, Mike Czin, after the D.C. Council was briefed on the plan Tuesday morning.

The District began deploying extra ambulances Monday, but Mr. Czin said the city is still working out details of the plan, including how long additional staffing will run and how much it will cost. The extra crews are currently being paid through the overtime budget, he said.

But even if the crews are there to staff the units, firefighters aren’t convinced the full contingent of ambulances can be deployed.

The fire department owns 98 ambulances, but only about 50 of them are in working condition on any given day, officials said.

“The other day we didn’t have but 45 for use,” said Dabney Hudson, second vice president of the firefighters union. “I think at times we’ll absolutely have the ability to keep that number on the street. But that’s going to hinge directly on how the shop performs.”

The department is in the process of refurbishing 15 old ambulances, a process that can typically build a new engine for an ambulance for about 60 percent of the cost of buying a new unit, Mr. Hudson said. But it will likely be several months until the department receives the refurbished ambulances.

The upcoming summer months are typically the toughest on the city’s ambulance fleet, when call volumes are up and high temperatures contribute to a high number of breakdowns.

The extra ambulances are among a host of changes the Bowser administration is rolling out to improve fire and EMS service in the District. The changes come at a time that the department is in flux, awaiting the May arrival of incoming Fire Chief Gregory Dean following the departure of interim Fire Chief Eugene Jones.

Among other immediate changes proposed by the Bowser administration, the department will review its mutual aid agreements with surrounding jurisdictions, deploy EMS supervisors to hospitals to speed up the time it takes to get an ambulance back into service after it transports a patient to a hospital and conduct a review of the city’s emergency dispatch system.

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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