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D.C.'s embattled Fire and EMS department is facing more scrutiny. FOX 5 has uncovered continued problems with emergency responders taking too long. At least a dozen incidents are under investigation for what appear to be slow response times.
The department has been under fire since last month, when it took more than 20 minutes for an ambulance to reach an injured police officer.
The firefighters’ union and chief disagree over what is to blame for the delays. In an email to key fire officials, the chief suggested some of the delays may be intentional.
"It appears that some units travel well below the speed limit during responses," he wrote.
That accusation didn't sit well with Ed Smith, President of the DC Firefighters Association.
"I find it absolutely ludicrous and baseless," he said.
Smith denies firefighters are doing anything to endanger the public. Yet one case involving paramedic Engine 18 found speed appears to be a factor. The engine, staffed with a firefighter paramedic, sometimes responds to medical emergencies. A preliminary investigation found the engine's average speed on one call was 16.9 miles per hour, when the speed limit is 25.
"We have to sit in traffic just like everyone else is experiencing and even with lights and sirens we're still stuck at the whim of traffic," Smith said defending the response time.
That run occurred on a Sunday afternoon, a time when the engine's slow speed seems hard to blame on traffic. Department documents show firefighters explained they were held up by double-parked cars and cited rules that require they make a complete "stop at each and every stop sign and red traffic light" before proceeding.
"There were approximately 18 traffic lights from the firehouse to the scene of that run. We can't blow traffic lights," said Smith.
Apparently not all ambulances and engines follow the rules. FOX 5 witnessed ambulances and engines slowing down, but not stopping before going through a stop sign. A top official within the D.C. government told FOX 5 there appears to be an effort to "work to the rule" as a delay tactic.
It comes amid growing controversy within the department for past failures previously reported by FOX 5. On New Year's Eve, a man died of a heart attack waiting for an ambulance when a large number of firefighters called out sick. In early March, a stroke victim was taken to the hospital by a fire truck because no nearby ambulances were available.
That same month, a police officer hit by a car waited more than 20 minutes for an ambulance to come from Prince George's County because none was available in the city. During a hearing over the department's ongoing problems, D.C. councilmember Tommy Wells, who heads the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, questioned Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul Quander.
"Would you agree that we have a shortage of paramedics in the city?" Wells asked.
Quander replied, "I think we need to hire more paramedics," but stopped shy of calling it a shortage.
Wells persisted asking "Yes or no?" After hesitating, Quander chose his words carefully saying, "I don't think we have a shortage."
In the police officer's case, an investigation found three ambulances took themselves out of service, but were supposed to monitor their radios and be available for an emergency. That didn't happen.
Now FOX 5 has learned of another incident involving an ambulance that raises questions. On April 1, 2013 at 2:14 a.m., a woman's medical alert went off. D.C. Fire and EMS records show Ambulance 25 was less than a quarter mile away. It should take less than a minute, but it took the unit nearly ten minutes to get there.
"To the best of my knowledge, there was an illness involved. While there was some miscommunication in the delay, we do need to get to the bottom of that," Smith admitted.
If one of the ambulance crew was sick, it wasn't reported prior to the investigation. No one told the dispatcher or supervisor that night. If they had, the ambulance could have been taken out of service and another unit dispatched. The delay was discovered after the fire chief ordered a review of all response times that exceed the eight minute national standard. The union says it's not their fault.
"It happens all day every day because of staffing shortages because of equipment malfunctions," Smith told FOX 5.
Equipment and staffing problems are well documented. The back and forth battle between the chief and the union are symptomatic of a system that is jeopardizing public safety.
Consider what the union claims happened to Engine 18. That's the engine we told you was under investigation for going too slow. According to the union, the fire chief followed the engine on the call and when it arrived, confronted the firefighter officer about their response.
"He pulled him to the side, questioned him about his response, and he said he was responding appropriately and taking safety into consideration. On other runs, the chief has stopped and admonished officers for blowing stop signs and red lights," noted Smith.
Chief Ellerbe declined to be interviewed, on what may appear to be unusual behavior, but in a statement said: "The department will take every appropriate measure to achieve its performance goals and fully investigate any inappropriate response times that fail to meet our standards."
In a letter to Quander, the union complained the pressure to respond faster endangers the public by driving "in a more aggressive manner." All firefighters now must justify the most minute delays, and instead of responding to calls, they claim they are bogged down writing reports.
"So approximately 160 reports in one day of units outside of the eight minute response time," Smith explained of a typical day.
These dangerous delays are just one of laundry list of things that have the union and fire chief at odds, including a protracted contract dispute over scheduling, paramedic shortages and equipment problems. Whatever the resolution, everyone agrees it can't come at the cost of saving a lives.