Loose Lips

Why So Many Broken Ambulances?

District officials are currently investigating why no D.C. ambulances were available to transport a seriously injured police officer near the intersection of Benning Road SE and East Capitol Street to the hospital last Tuesday. One possible reason: the city's fire department has a lot of broken ambulances.

The city is supposed to have 39 ambulances available to respond to calls at any given time. When an emergency dispatcher was looking for an ambulance to transport the wounded police officer Tuesday, four ambulances were out of service for mechanical reasons, according to fire union boss Ed Smith.

That's more than 10 percent of what's supposed to be the city's in-service fleet. The fire department referred questions about Tuesday's incident to Pedro Ribeiro, the mayor's spokesman, who says the city's investigation will be wide-reaching and will examine current equipment readiness levels.

At an oversight hearing last month, the fire department said it had 106 "EMS transport units" on hand, which suggests that there ought to be plenty of reserve ambulances ready to go into service should any of the 39 on-duty ambulances break down. But that obviously wasn't the case Tuesday.

Keeping its equipment in working order has been a vexing problem for the fire department for quite some time, and Tuesday's incident seems to indicate that it's still a long way from finding an answer. Last year LL detailed how the city's lone tower truck, which is supposed to help rescue the president should there be a fire at the White House, was often out of service and was a "piece of crap," according to one of its operators.

Also last year, the city's inspector general issued a report saying that the department's only boat capable of handling large-scale emergencies was "obsolete and its upkeep has been neglected," the Examiner reported. And a couple weeks ago, Ward 6 Councilmartyr Saint Tommy Wells asked the inspector general to investigate why the fire department's mechanics were pulling in huge amounts of overtime. The union representing the mechanics says it's because the fire department hasn't properly staffed its repair shop and the workload is enormous. All of the top 14 fire department employees making the most overtime are mechanics, city records show. One mechanic nearly tripled his salary last fiscal year, earning more than $97,000 in overtime alone.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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