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Opinion

Examiner Local Editorial: Ambulance fiasco no isolated incident

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Opinion,Local Editorial

Seven employees of the District's Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department are being disciplined for failing to respond to a seriously injured police officer after his motor scooter was struck by a car on March 5. Officer Sean Hickman waited on the pavement for 20 minutes until an ambulance arrived from Prince George's County. It took an additional 40 minutes to transport him to MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

Paul Quander, deputy mayor for public safety and justice, told reporters Thursday that "human error" was to blame for the lack of response by any of the 39 D.C. ambulances in service at the time, including three within a four-mile radius of the hit-and-run. He added that it "is more about individuals not doing their jobs rather than a systemic failure."

But this is only the latest in a string of delayed responses this year -- including a heart attack victim who died after waiting 29 minutes for an ambulance and an elderly stroke victim who had to be transported to the hospital in a fire truck. Taken together, these incidents indicate systemic failure.

Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe told D.C. Council members himself that response times for ambulances have increased. So this is a larger problem that has never been adequately resolved since New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum died in 2006 as a result of another FEMS screw-up.

Dispatchers in the Office of Unified Communications thought Ambulance 15 was still at Howard University Hospital in Northwest, because the crew had failed to report its location. The ambulance was really parked at Engine 15 headquarters, a few miles from the injured officer, and the crew failed to respond to the distress call. The OUC also failed in that it apparently never double-checked with the crew during the 20 minutes Hickman lay writhing on the pavement. Ambulance 15 was rightly reprimanded, but there was a failure all around.

It's not only in-service ambulances that FEMS has trouble keeping tabs on. WTTG Fox 5 reported that Deputy Chief John Donnelly is trying to find 20 missing reserve ambulances and that council members had been given incorrect figures regarding FEMS' reserve vehicles.

A well-managed department in charge of life-and-death emergencies in the nation's capital should be able to account for all of its equipment and personnel at any given moment. FEMS' inability to do either is about as systemic as failure gets.

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