D.C. fire hearing: Nearly half of city's ambulances are out of service

Ellerbe said that recent incidents are not part of a systemic problem with D.C. Fire. Photo: D.C. Fire & EMS

Nearly half of the ambulances serving the District of Columbia are out of service, an apologetic D.C. Fire Chief Ken Ellerbe testified Thursday before members of the D.C. Council.

“I regret that we sent inaccurate information to both the executive and legislative branches and I accept responsibility,” said a defensive Ellerbe.

Ellerbe, who has faced multiple calls for his resignation in the midst of numerous issues facing the city's fire and EMS response capabilities, said that the equipment problems his department faces are due to them "holding on to things" for too long.

The chief told members of the D.C. Council that just 58 of the District's 111 ambulances are currently in service.

For Ellerbe, Thursday's hearing was an uncomfortable grilling. But for Durand Ford, Jr., it was like ripping the scab off a wound.

His father, Durand Ford, Sr., died from a heart attack on New Year’s Day while waiting for an ambulance. Ford’s death was one of three incidents under the microscope during Thursday’s testimony on slow response times.

At issue is whether the three problems in the last three months are because of a systemic breakdown or if, as Chief Ellerbe and Deputy Mayor Paul Quander contend, unfortunate outliers.

"The events of New Year’s Day are atypical, hopefully never happen again,” Quander says.

More than 100 firefighters called out sick on New Year’s Eve. But the subsequent two incidents involving an MPD motorcycle officer and a stroke patient being transported in the cab of a fire truck are being blamed on an aging fleet and a lack of paramedics.

"Sometimes it takes an incident to realize there are these issues,” Ellerbe says.

Ford, however, calls these problems just an opportunity to punt the blame.

The department came under even more intense scrutiny on March 5 after a Metropolitan Police Department officer had to wait nearly 20 minutes for a mutual aide Prince George's County ambulance to tend to him on after he was injured in a hit-and-run in Southeast.

A recently-released city report indicated that three D.C. ambulances were improperly out of service that night, forcing the need for a Maryland-based unit to respond. The officer finally made it to an area hospital nearly an hour after he was hit.

Seven city employees were disciplined for the inadequate response.

Ellerbe also said that the department had been operating under an incorrect inventory list for about a year.

In response, though, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson told Ellerbe that the issues were a "management problem" and that he needs to find a staff that can get their jobs done more effectively.

In a statement released Thursday, Ed Smith, the president of the D.C. Fire Union Local 36, said that the D.C. Fire & EMS Department is living on "borrowed time."

"Nothing proves Chief Ellerbe's negligence more than the state of the fleet of reserve ambulances and fire trucks that is supposed to be at the ready at all times," Smith said. "The fleet is virtually non-existent and has been a key factor in recent well-publicized EMS failures."

Ellerbe overwhelmingly received a vote of no confidence from the fire union on Monday. Immediately after the 300-37 vote, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul Quander threw their support behind Ellerbe.

"Despite the 'no confidence' vote tallied by the local firefighters union, I am very optimistic about the department's future and encouraged by the service we provide to District residents and visitors," Ellerbe said in a statement after the vote.

His department also faced scrutiny over claims of sexual harassment in February. Numerous cadets told ABC7's Jay Korff that two training academy instructors repeatedly harassed them.

ABC7's Jay Korff, Tom Roussey, Autria Godfrey, and Sam Ford contributed to this report.