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DC’s EMS woes puts spotlight on the regeneration gap. Shop chief says ambulance shut down apparently came with little warning.

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Previous coverage

Three-years-ago Boca Raton (FL) Fire Chief Tom Wood contacted me about what was, at that point, a little discussed but potentially major issue facing fire and EMS across the country. Admittedly, my eyes glazed over a bit as Chief Wood explained the ins and outs of the new EPA mandated diesel emission standards. But my news instincts kicked in when the chief told me about his ambulances shutting down on major highways and limping back to quarters. That’s what brought about the guest column in April of 2010 titled The Regeneration Gap: A fire chief wrestles with front-line apparatus time-outs due to EPA diesel emission regulations.

The issue has not gone away, even though EPA made some modifications to the regulations that, on the surface, were supposed to help fire and EMS deal with the problem (though most say it really didn’t). Wednesday’s shut down of a DC Fire & EMS Department ambulance on I-295 while transporting a trauma code shooting victim to the hospital has the mainstream media’s attention on regeneration, for the moment. The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis linked to Chief Wood’s 2010 column online and reporter Peter Hermann interviewed him for an article in today’s paper.

In the DC case, the early word from union president Ed Smith, and shop head, Deputy Chief John Donnelly, is that the normal warnings didn’t happen with Ambulance 19. Here’s what Peter Hermann wrote:

A warning light is supposed to flash and give the driver enough time to complete an emergency run before taking a scheduled break. Donnelly said that didn’t happen Wednesday; instead, a more severe indicator came on warning of imminent failure.

“That is not supposed to happen,” the deputy chief said, noting that he was awaiting results of a diagnostic test to determine whether the breakdown was the result of a clogged filter or some other problem.

Chief Wood doesn’t know the details of the DC incident but he has made it his business to come up with solutions for his department, including doing forced regeneration on a schedule rather than being at the mercy of the rig. Here’s what he wrote in our comments section yesterday:

Your readers may be interested in an article I wrote in our Department Newsletter in July-August 2012. The link is here: http://myboca.us/fire/pdf/Newsletters/July-August2012.pdf

The article highlights an incident in Bracketville, Texas from February 15, 2012 in which the passenger of a truck fire died. “Diesel motor de-rating” slowed the fire apparatus response to the scene.

Regeneration can be performed on demand or “forced regeneration” by a qualified mechanic and the correct software. Our fleet has three different motor manufacturers and our shop has the software to “force regeneration” on our schedule, instead of at random. We schedule our fleet through the shop once a month for “forced regeneration”, one unit at a time. This also assures a complete 100% cleaning of the Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF). Under the random / ordinary method, many of our apparatus were regenerating every 4 days, obviously not completing the process. I recommend the “forced regeneration” as a best practice.

Below is more coverage of the DC incident.

Peter Hermann, The Washington Post:

“I know they’re trying to reduce pollution emissions, but I don’t know if they contemplated all the dangers,” said Thomas R. Wood, the chief of fire rescue services in Boca Raton, Fla. “Fire doesn’t take a timeout to let firefighters regroup and regenerate.”

Last year, the EPA, facing criticism from fire chiefs and trade groups, allowed for exceptions so that emergency vehicles “would no longer face power disruptions.”

But Harold Boer, head of the Fire Apparatus Manufacturing Association, said the waiver does not fully exempt emergency vehicles and instead allows them to be retrofitted so there is more time between regeneration stops. Boer, who is also president of the fire truck builder Rosenbauer, said few cities request the work because it does not eliminate the problem. He said a request to the EPA for a blanket exemption for all emergency vehicles has been denied.

D.C. fire department officials are still probing the glitch, but they said the issue seems to be specific to a sequence of warning lights that ultimately notify the ambulance crew the engine will shut off imminently. And while it’s the first time city officials said a department ambulance has failed while in transport as a result of the emissions system, widespread problems have been reported nationally.

“What I want to do is see what the computer says about this problem, and then we can re-evaluate if we need to do anything,” Deputy Chief John Donnelly said, assessing the extent of the issue. “We’re going to look at the series of warning lights and the indicators. They should lead us back to the problem.”

Paul Wagner, WTTG-TV/Fox5:

When the D.C. fire department began buying these diesel engine ambulances a few years ago, officials knew they would have to manage them with a new emission control system that would automatically shut the engine down if it wasn’t allowed to what’s called “regenerate.”

It was a mandate from the Environmental Protection Agency.

And until recently, the fire department said it had been able to handle the requirements without any significant incidents.

One of those incidents involved the same ambulance that broke down Wednesday.

“On May 22nd or 23rd, it was here in the shop,” said Deputy Chief John Donnelly of D.C. Fire and EMS. “It had a problem with the regeneration system. That problem was a lot different. The end result is the same – the engine gave a warning light. But it was different in some ways and we sent it to the dealer and got it back. It was repaired and it was running fine when we put it back in service.”

Donnelly says the drivers of the rigs and the people who manage them have to stay on top of the warning lights to make sure they don’t ever approach the shut down level.

“We don’t want to have any incidents like this, but we’ve shown we can manage it,” he said. “It’s tough. It takes a lot of coordination and effort and there are a number of people that work on it. The drivers have a role, the dispatchers have a role, the battalion chiefs and EMS supervisors have a role and everybody has been doing their job in managing this. I’m confident we can.”

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Comments - Add Yours

  • HOOKMAN

    Too bad the members on the ambulances who’re getting a royal daily beatdown, aren’t allowed time to regenerate….Once again…glad the fireman are ok and did not succumb to hyperthermia or any other illnesses due to the extreme heat and humidity….

  • parafirepig

    Why does this make news. It happen all the time. It is not the crews fault or DC fire/ems for that matter. Blame the federal gov’t.

    • Anonymous

      Any and Everything that goes wrong in DCFEMS makes the news….waiting for someone to blame the Fire Chief for this one.

      • Barney Miller

        Usually it is the fire administrator blaming the “home grown terrorists” that he does not respect, BECAUSE they are not city residents…..How does Mr. Alvin Bethea know about all the “sabotage”? Cause the administrator told him so..

  • Delaney Matthews Chief Engineer TDVFD

    Here’s a solution, try regenerating in the morning during vehicle check out and you know it been done daily. Stop and go requires more regenerating than over the road trucks. Try that and see what happens.

    • Rich Schaffer

      Well if the military can bypass the regen why shouldn’t the fire & ems service nationwide be granted the same option? This issue is known to potentially happen (and it of course happens at the worst time) and system circumvention should have been planned- but its never too late! Hopefully the fire service as a whole is taking note- this is a good learning tool.

    • notapopularopinion

      regeneration cannot be self administered, the unit ‘tells’ you when to do it.

  • doobis

    Is the road to hell still paved with good intentions or have the feds fixed that problem, too?

    • Anonymous

      They barely get time to do a check out let alone regen. The guys on the ambulance get crushed everyday 20 plus runs. They don’t even want to let them go out of service if they need to Decon .

  • uptown saturday nite

    Its not the crews fault by no means…some how since we inherit these units we have got to come up with a functional system that accounts and allows time for units to regen…. at the same time were able to have ample coverage. It made the news cuz the unit broke down with someone on it….we all know these units break down all time.

  • mark

    Good, maybe finally something will be done about this stupidity.

  • THE TRUTH

    THE TRUTH
    The truth…now, it’s in hiding so the public can never learn the truth – just like numerous other pieces of equipment that were lined up on the streets surrounding the repair shop and relocated all over the City so that the news media cannot film such a menagerie of broke down equipment all in one place! The Deputy Chief changed the focus of this story by rambling about EPA regs rather than discussing the real issue, i.e., lack of consistently dependable equipment! LRB was seen pulling up behind the disabled ambulance where he briefly talked to the crew…then left. It’s one thing when the fire department personnel have the perception that the fire chief doesn’t care about them; however, it’s another when he displays a lack of concern for the citizens, particularly one who, “was gravely wounded.”
    The truth…the men and women of the District of Columbia Fire Department strive to do their very best each and every day for the citizens and visitors of the City. It’s one of those things where most people really don’t care what these first responders do…until they need them. Unfortunately, they have incompetent leadership who doesn’t tell the truth, ambulances without air conditioning, equipment that is malfunctioning or wasn’t repaired properly and they’re severely understaffed. In a City with a $3M+ surplus, this fire department could be a first class model for the entire Country, instead it’s “management by crisis” – one crisis after another! You really need to wake up Mayor Gray! Hopefully, you will not run for another term for the sake of our citizens, tourists and the district government personnel who really try to make a difference – we ALL deserve better!

    • Anonymous

      It was only a matter of time before the Chief would be blamed.

    • Barney Miller

      @Truth…don’t want to take away from your accurate dissertation…but the city reserve cash is in THE BILLIONS (1.2 I think)…with AAA Bond rating. that surplus was just from budget surplus of the prior year.. not trying to under cut you.

  • Belladonnanne

    We manage regen all right at a neighboring county; medic units are run ragged, but we have a great PM program, it is adhered to, we have great EMS supervisors who keep the medics supported, and automatic aid agreements and working relationships which support the whole shebang, which is getting top notch fire and EMS services to the citizens. Hookman, of course, does not acknowledge how medics are slammed, and those assigned to fire apparatus are not as taxed. A medic unit is OOS for at least an hour for a call; a suppression rig about 15 minutes on an EMS call. I hope DC can put a supportable PM and maintenance program for regen. It is not that hard. Unfortunately, DC FEMS is so vilified now, that any transgression is magnified.

    • A Nonny Mouse

      I’ve been trying to get a track on the average firefighter/paramedic’s day done. That 15 minutes only happens if the patient gets passed to a transport unit, not if the FF/P goes along. Then there’s the next 15 minute call that happens while the first transport unit is on the same call. I suspect that committed time for FF/Ps in the city is not much different than that of the single role providers, and that doesn’t include any paperwork they do while in service.

  • Joe

    Too bad the EPA didn’t rescind the regen mandated system for emergency equipment 2 years ago. I believe they killed the rule for emergency equipment about a year ago according to fire chief or fire engineering magazine. Once again the law of union tended consequences prevails much like many things mandated by the feds

    • Gwoneg

      Did you mean the law of onion tented consequences? That makes as much sense as these EPA regulations.

  • ukfbbuff

    From Calif..

    My FD Mechanics solution to this is:

    Take the Medic Units out of service every few days and take them to the nearby freeway and have them drive at high speed for 20 minutes and then return to quarters.

    • it continues

      not a bad idea but when a call is dispatched and the dispatcher has to say stand by for an ems unit, I think driving on the highway for fun is out of the question. Since you cant even go to the bathroom without permission I highly doubt that this is a solution for this job

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