- The Washington Times - Monday, December 24, 2018

As the D.C. Council prepares for oversight hearings next year, one key issue will be the D.C. Fire and EMS Department’s fleet of emergency vehicles, which The Washington Times has reported is depleted and in need of repair.

Council members Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, and Charles Allen, Ward 6 Democrat, have expressed keen interest in the fire department’s vehicles after The Times’ reports on their condition. Mr. Allen chairs the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, and Ms. Cheh is a member.

Ms. Cheh said the issue is so pressing that the committee might not wait for oversight hearings this spring. Mr. Allen said he will campaign aggressively for money to buy vehicles and to build a new maintenance facility for the fleet.

Citing five FEMS sources and department documents, The Times first reported last month that the fire department has fallen behind in buying new vehicles and has allowed repair orders to pile up. As a result, stations have had to struggle with broken or insufficient engines and trucks.

“About 90 to 95 percent of our vehicles have something mechanically wrong with them that keeps festering,” a senior FEMS official familiar with safety oversight told The Times on the condition of anonymity. “I’m talking about everything — reserve fleet and everything.”

Spokesman Doug Buchanan told The Times that the “vast majority of the fleet has passed inspection” according to a spreadsheet of annual records by D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles.

But recent inspection reports he shared from Underwriters Laboratories show that only 65 percent of engines’ pump systems and 77 percent of truck ladders have been tested and quality-certified this year.

Mr. Buchanan called it “a significant improvement” because the department was not certifying the equipment before 2015.

FEMS has long struggled with failing brakes and broken ladders in its aging fleet of engines, trucks, ambulances and rescue squad vehicles, but sources told The Times that untrained mechanics and a failure to replace vehicles have allowed problems to persist.

What’s more, FEMS Special Order 2007-66 requires the department to keep in reserve 30 engines and nine ladder trucks to replace vehicles that break down in the line of duty or to provide water support. Its “order book” of duties and protocols directs the apparatus division to maintain 38 reserve vehicles.

After reviewing a sampling of 20 fleet condition reports from September and October, The Times found that the department had two reserve engines for the city for half of those days. On five of those days, only one reserve engine was available. On three days — Oct. 22, 23 and 26 — no reserve engines were available. No reserve ladder trucks were listed for any of those 20 days.

Dabney Hudson, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association IAFF Local No. 36, said a dearth of reserve vehicles forces stations to cover for one another, leaving some neighborhoods with inadequate protection and longer response times.

Mr. Buchanan has said the department has followed since 2015 the vehicle purchase recommendations of a 2013 audit, but he also acknowledged the low number of reserve vehicles.

In 2013, the District paid Business Development Associates LLC $183,000 to audit the fleet. According to the 194-page audit, the fire department needs 59 new engines, 26 ladder trucks, nine rescue squad vehicles and 86 ambulances over the next 10 years to restore the fleet. Since then, FEMS has purchased 24 engines, five ladder trucks and 16 ambulances.

The contractor also recommended 129 items to restore the fleet from its “critical state,” including training mechanics who all lacked certification to work on emergency vehicles. The audit also recommended that FEMS reorganize the shop, which was “an accident waiting to happen” because of crowding, oil spills and poor ventilation, as well as poor records of repairs.

The shop is still crowded, with vehicles in need of repair filling its parking lot and lined along the street.

Mr. Buchanan said only two of the shop’s 23 mechanics have completed training for the Emergency Vehicle Technician Certification.

The Times also cited five FEMS sources to report that some firefighters have been using their own money to buy auto parts and perform minor repairs themselves at their stations to avoid delays and poor workmanship at the department’s maintenance facility.

The station repairs violate FEMS policy, and the firefighters could face disciplinary action for their maintenance efforts.

“‘Nuisance’ repairs get no love, so we take care of it ourselves,” a firefighter with Engine 13, an 18-year veteran, told The Times.

Mr. Buchanan told The Times in a written statement: “It is the Department’s policy that our vehicles get repaired at the apparatus division. We never want our employees to pay for repairs themselves. … We encourage any of our dedicated members to report any repair work promptly so that we can properly address those needs.”

• Julia Airey can be reached at jairey@washingtontimes.com.

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