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The District’s fire chief was at a loss Wednesday to explain to a D.C. Council committee why his department sought no money in this year’s budget for trucks and ambulances despite a fleet that is aging and in disrepair.
The city is expected to receive 30 new ambulances this year through $6.6 million allotted after vehicle maintenance and replacement became an issue following a series of high-profile malfunctions. But D.C. Council member Tommy Wells grilled Chief Kenneth Ellerbe about the lack of funds appropriated this fiscal year, which started after problems with the fleet were already well documented.
“There was no money in the budget for this fiscal year for fleet replacement — none. And I’m sure that you will get it in there,” said Mr. Wells, a Ward 6 Democrat and mayoral candidate who heads the council committee with oversight of the department. “But I cannot ignore the fact that no capital dollars were requested to see that you had the trucks and ambulances you needed in this year’s budget.”
Chief Ellerbe said the issue was a possible “oversight” and added that the person in charge of the budget has since retired.
The District of Columbia's Fire Department recently came into possession of 13 new ambulances to supplement the city's aging fleet, but there's one problem: D.C. Fire Chief Ken Ellerbe apparently doesn't know where they're located.
The chief was grilled during an appearance before the D.C. Council on Wednesday, during which Councilman Tommy Wells questioned whether or not the maligned department had a handle on its systemic problems plaguing the agency and compromising public safety.
"I don't see that you are making change yet," said Wells.
Some of the issues at hand include: ambulances with broken fuel gauges and no air conditioning, engines catching fire, brakes working improperly, and not enough ambulances to respond to critical calls.
"Certainly, updating a system that's been in disrepair for 15 to 20 years cannot be accomplished overnight, but at least we have identified a starting point and a path forward," defended Chief Ellerbe, who also touted that response times are down, more paramedics have been hired, and 13 new ambulancecs are currently in use.
But when asked where these ambulances were, he replied that one was being repaired while the other is at the White House. He could not say where the others were stationed.
He also admitted that the only tower truck in the fleet has been out of service since April and should be scrapped.
ABC7 also found that Chief Ellerbe did not know how many of the department’s pumper trucks had passed a safety certification test – and also was unaware that only three out of 23 ladder trucks had passed such a test.
"It doesn't mean that the ladder trucks don't operate. It doesn't mean that they don't operate well. It just means we haven't had somebody go in and test those ladders," he said.
But Ellerbe could not assure firefighters that they are working on safe vehicles. Union officials, who have repeatedly aired these concerns as well as many others, remain frustrated.
"It's going to take a large infusion of money and significant hiring to fix the problems," said Dabney Hudson with the D.C. Firefighters Association Local 36. "I didn't hear that that was going to happen, but we are hopeful that it does."
It was another stressful appearance Wednesday in front of the D.C. Council for Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe.
Ellerbe spent two hours in the hot seat explaining why his department, responsible for Fire and EMS services in the nation's capital, continues to be plagued by problems that strike at the core of its mission.
"Our focus right now is what the city needs," Ellerbe told the committee chairman, councilmember and mayoral candidate Tommy Wells. "From apparatus to personnel."
The D.C. Fire and EMS Department is routinely one of the busiest in the nation. But, according to an outside audit, the department's fleet of fire trucks, engines and ambulances is in a "critical state with chronic long-term management, maintenance and replacement issues."
The district-based consulting firm, BDA Global, released its report last week.
"The report shows enough of a systemic failure that it requires a new paradigm," Wells told Ellerbe. "A radical change."
Ellerbe replied: "There is an extreme sense of urgency and while we understand that it's going to take an extraordinary effort to respond to these challenges. We're prepared to do that."
But Chief Ellerbe admitted there was no money for new apparatus put in the fiscal 2013 budget. An oversight he blamed on a former department official.
The chief did provide some positive news to the Wells' committee. He says 17 new ambulances will be in the city by the end of the year and that the department has hired seven new paramedics.