An International Association of Firefighters spokesperson said that a shortage of ambulances, inadequate training and a poor strategy make the district “one of the worst EMS systems in the country when compared to other major metropolitan areas,” reports The Associated Press.
The department has lost more than 40 paramedics since 2011, and just two have been hired. The attrition rate is just one of many problems in a department struggling to keep up with the city’s growing population and a rapidly increasing number of emergency medical calls.
Staffing and response time data collected by The Associated Press show the district is attempting to make do with less than half the paramedics employed by similar departments.
During his two-plus years on the job, Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe has yet to implement any major reforms, stonewalled by the firefighters’ union and a skeptical D.C. Council that has questioned his competence. Mayor Vincent Gray hired Ellerbe and has consistently defended him.
Problems have mounted. This year, a police officer seriously injured in a hit-and-run had to wait nearly 15 minutes for an ambulance from Maryland because no vehicles from the city’s fleet were available. A man died while waiting for an ambulance on New Year’s Day, when dozens of firefighters called in sick. And on Monday, an ambulance that was supposed to travel with the president’s motorcade ran out of gas at the White House because of fuel gauge problems.
The department hasn’t increased the number of ambulances in four years, even though the city’s population swells at a rate of 1,000 people a month. The council recently rejected a plan by Ellerbe that would have left the city without a single paramedic riding an ambulance in the overnight hours. This summer, the department contracted private ambulance companies to staff events at sports venues because too many city ambulances were breaking down.
Kenneth Lyons, president of the union that represents EMS workers, said residents with medical emergencies are better off finding their own ride to the hospital.
Successful urban fire and EMS departments tend to follow one of two models. One is where firefighters are trained as paramedics, and vice versa, so that they can respond to any emergency. In the other, the ambulance service is separate and employees are more specialized.
The District of Columbia has combined aspects of both systems into an unwieldy whole.
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