In January 2006, the entire nation was shocked when New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum died after what the D.C. inspector general later called "an unacceptable chain of failure" by the city's Emergency Medical System. Despite obvious trauma inflicted during a street robbery near his Northwest home, the emergency medical technicians who arrived first on the scene with a fire engine incorrectly assessed the semiconscious Rosenbaum as a low-priority drunk.
That was a fatal mistake. It took 23 minutes for an ambulance staffed by other EMTs to arrive on the scene. Instead of taking him to the nearest hospital, Rosenbaum was transported across town to Howard University Hospital, where he was left lying alone on a gurney for more than an hour.
The Rosenbaum case should be front and center next year when the D.C. Council considers Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe's controversial plan to pull paramedics from all 14 ambulance crews they currently serve on between 1 and 7 a.m. Chief Ellerbe claims that the paramedics are needed more during the daytime, when emergency calls are double what they are at night. And since firefighters are also cross-trained as paramedics, he says, such "peak loading" will not endanger city residents.
Deploying personnel when they are most needed is sound management, but not at the expense of having no paramedic-staffed medic units available for six hours every night. Unlike EMTs, paramedics receive more than a thousand hours of advanced training, enabling them to operate sophisticated medical equipment, start IVs, insert breathing tubes and administer life-saving drugs on the scene when seconds count.
Last month, Capt. Ed Smith, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association, warned that paramedics have been leaving the District for other jurisdictions, and the city is "not covering the 14 [ambulance] units they have now." Fox 5 confirmed this, noting that two dozen fire engines are currently "serving as expensive EMS shuttles." One District resident experiencing chest pains said she had to wait nearly 20 minutes before a paramedic-staffed fire engine from Northwest showed up at her Southeast home.
Nighttime emergency service would not improve under Chief Ellerbe's plan, which was originally scheduled to go into effect Nov. 5th until Council Chairman Phil Mendelson reminded him that the council must first approve any major EMS changes. Council members now have time to ask themselves and the chief: If a paramedic had been dispatched to Gramercy Street that winter night in 2006, would David Rosenbaum still be alive today?