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Jonetta Rose Barras: Looking for D.C.'s public safety czar

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras,Vincent Gray,Tommy Wells

"Now is the time to restore coordination and accountability in the District's public safety operations." That's what newly elected Mayor Vincent C. Gray said in 2010, resurrecting the position of deputy mayor for public safety and justice and asserting that Paul A. Quander Jr. would "help eliminate the conditions that breed crime and threaten public safety."

Promises, promises.

Quander was charged with direct oversight of several agencies, including the fire department and emergency medical services. Citing the case involving the tragic death of David Rosenbaum, Gray acknowledged in 2010 that "there have been far too many questions raised about the responsiveness and quality of care" provided by emergency services.

Nothing much has changed.

FEMS has continued to be plagued by aging equipment, insufficient staff, and a deployment plan that doesn't reflect the city's population boom and needs. Citizens are the victims. Consider the recent case of the badly injured motorcycle police officer who had to wait 15 minutes for an ambulance. When it finally arrived, it was from Prince George's County -- not the District.

Most people have criticized Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe. And a deputy chief was forced to retire after providing incorrect information to the council.

Isn't Quander equally accountable? Isn't he paid the big bucks to ensure an accurate count of available firetrucks and guarantee the ambulance arrives on time?

"The deputy mayor is supposed to be above everything, so he can help run interference and help fix problems," said a high-level government manager.

D.C. Councilman Tommy Wells, who became chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary only two months ago, said he didn't want to "make judgments" about the deputy mayor's role. But Wells said he has scheduled a public hearing for March 28.

"I'm going to dig pretty deep into systemic issues like ambulance response time," said Wells, reminding me the problem dates back to Sharon Pratt's administration. She ran for mayor in 1990, after a friend suffering an asthma attack died when emergency medical services failed to respond in time.

Quander told me the administration has used a "systematic and scientific" approach to resolving FEMS problems. "We have been working at this for two years." He said Ellerbe has developed a plan, which provides 45 ambulances during peak hours.

To get people on board, the document was circulated to various unions. "We just received a response from Local 36 on March 6," added Quander.

Don't expect change to come next week.

Quander said he and Ellerbe will review union responses and make adjustments, if necessary. Then, the administration will formally submit the plan to the council.

"We hope to do it in a relatively short period of time," said Quander, declining to provide a completion date.

By law, the council must approve any changes to the emergency medical services system. That process could involve yet another public hearing.

While Quander and his team fiddle, how many more District residents' lives will be jeopardized by the city's antiquated and dysfunctional emergency medical system?

Jonetta Rose Barras can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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