Loose Lips

Fire Department Report Silent on Mechanical Issues

Below is Deputy Mayor Paul Quander's report on what happened two weeks ago when no D.C. ambulances could be found to transport an injured police officer to the hospital. Most of the contents of the report, which say that three ambulance units were improperly out of service, were leaked earlier this week. Quander's report says seven fire department employees—the crews of the three ambulances and emergency liaison officer who "failed to properly monitor the units" that day—have been referred for appropriate personnel action.

Union officials have problems with the report. Ed Smith, head of the firefighters union, says his guys are being scapegoated for public relations reasons and that Quander did not interview the firefighters he's directed be punished, instead relying only on their written reports. "How can you do an investigation without interviewing people?" says Smith.

Also missing? Any discussion on whether or not it's a problem that 10 percent of city's ambulance fleet was out of service for mechanical issues when the police officer needed help. Quander's report says two ambulances "failed to start," one had problems with its lights, and another was out of service because of "oil-filter change, preventative maintenance and brakes."

Quander's report makes no determination on whether the fact that so many ambulances are out of service at once for mechanical issues is a problem that someone should be punished for. (Keep in mind that the department has 39 ambulance units on duty at any one time, out of a fleet more than 100.) Instead, he notes that since the incident two weeks ago, the department now has four reserve ambulance stocked and ready to replace any broken ambulances that go out of service for more than 30 minutes. Again, there's no discussion in the report as to why such a policy wasn't in place to begin with, even though the department's fleet problems are long-standing and well-documented. At a news conference two weeks ago, Quander insisted that putting fully stocked ambulances on ready reserve was a new policy that "just [happened] to coincide" with the incident involving the injured police officer.

The mayor's spokesman says the report "speaks for itself."

Read it here:

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • management 101

    It seems that the fire department's bleeding over into public health, and not doing a very good job at it.

    While some of the employee skill sets and institutional core competencies seem to overlap, others seem to be well out of the fire department's traditional mission. Fire departments employ well-trained personnel ready to respond to relatively rare emergencies with a command and control hierarchical structure. They have chiefs commanding captains who are leading firemen to carry out multiple simultaneous tasks with a common overarching goal. They have fire stations spread throughout the community which allow for the rapid arrival of the first fire engine and the prompt arrival of additional forces. By the nature of their job and their historical presence, they have unionized and garnered relatively high pay and benefits. Firemen are expensive.

    Historically, firemen sat mostly idle, available for immediate response to what has always been a relatively rare event - a building fire or conflagration. Modern construction, codes, etc. have reduced what was rare to be even rarer.

    Almost every fire department in the country increases the utility they receive from their firemen by using them to first respond to medical calls. The firemen sitting mostly idle in their firestations are a 'sunk cost' and cities can view using them as first responders as almost free, or at least already paid for, labor. By and large, this is a great idea. This idea starts to fail however, when the level of activity impinges on the firemen's availability for their original purpose -- if the first response to medical calls requires hiring more expensive firemen to maintain the same level of service, training, and response, it may be fiscally responsible to hire cheaper EMTs handle some of the first responder duties.

    In some fire departments, especially in smaller towns or counties, the fire departments also handle EMS response. In these places it may make sense, the tax base may only support hiring 2-3 firemen on duty and 2 ambulance personnel to cover a wide area: combining forces can improve both fire and ambulance service in such an area.

    This idea spread to cities, as well, usually because the tax base has fled, and private or hospital-based ambulances services could not survive. With the city paying the bill for ambulances, and many fire unions cooperating, the cities took over ambulance service, with either union firemen or union EMTs. In many cities, these public jobs were used as part of a modern spoils system, where politicians could hire the sons, daughters, and extended family of supporters.

    It is past time to consider privatizing the ambulance transport function. It is largely outside the core competency of fire departments, and does not require a hierarchical, experience-based, unionized, pensioned workforce. The tasks it requires benefit from early adoption of new technology, employees recent training rather than work experience, responsive staffing schemes, flexible schedules, and generally, much higher employee turnover than a fire department could afford.

  • Purify

    Why has this only become an issue when it's a MPD PO that was injured? How many times has a regular citizen waited for too long for an ambulance because these guys can't or won't do their jobs? Do those instances not matter?

    The fact that this has only become an issue because it was a police officer should piss all the taxpayers of DC off, as if we shouldn't be pissed off enough already.

  • Terry Miller

    All the ambulances have Automatic Vehicle Locaters. Even if the ambulance crew "forgot" to go back in service, the dispatchers can "see" where they actually are. The dispatcher should have called the unit to confirm their location and dispatched them, pronto. My understanding of the emergency liaison officer at the Office of Unified Communications is to help direct the flow of traffic to emergency rooms, so that emergency rooms don't get over run with patients and cause long delays at the hospitals. I never heard of an ambulance being allowed to go "out of service" and then being required to monitor the vocal alarm to see if they are needed. YOu are either "in service" or "out of service" . Also, D.C. Fire is supposed to have "ready reserve" ambulances stored in a garage behind a firehouse on Georgia Avenue, in case of a major emergency. What happened to them? This just doesn't add up.

  • S.E.

    @Purify.....Well said!!!!

  • nivin

    management 101--There is another solution to the problem. Since fire fighting is such a rare event, Maybe we don't need as many firefighters as we have. the District has 33 fire companies (not including truck companies) with 4 frirefighters per company. The fire companies are staffed 24 hours a day. It taakes 5 firefighters to man one position 24 hours a day. than means for each company we closed, we would gain 20 positions, enough to man 10 additional ambulances!! I don't know the adctual numbers, but it seems obvious to me that a fire truch cost a lot more to purchare and maintain than an ambulance. It is pass time to begin considering closing firehouses and converting the personnel to ambulance work fulltime.