The DC Fire & EMS Department has been in the news almost constantly over the last few weeks and tonight is no exception. Channel 5 (WTTG-TV/Fox 5) in Washington assigned two different reporters today to look at the fallout from their story last night that resulted in DC Fire & EMS Department Chief Kenneth Ellerbe admitting information given to the City Council about the status of the reserve fleet was wrong. Along with Channel 7 (WJLA-TV/ABC 7), they are trying to get to the bottom of whether the Nation’s Capital has an adequate reserve fleet of fire trucks and ambulances.
The reporters had to get those answers without the help of Chief Kenneth Ellerbe and Deputy Mayor Paul Quander. Instead, they were left to talk with Deputy Chief John Donnelly. Donnelly has taken over at the apapratus shop for Deputy Chief Wayne Branch. According to a statement from Chief Ellerbe last night, Branch decided to retire because of the screwup over the reserve fleet list and the concerns of excessive overtime at the shop.
Along the way today, reporter Paul Wagner uncovered another issue for the department. Just a dozen blocks from the U.S. Capitol building, Wagner pointed out unsecured apparatus parked all around the shop at Half Street and M Street Southwest. It’s a long standing practice, and while some precautions are taken, Wagner found a bunch of unlocked ambulances.
The readiness of the D.C. fire department’s fleet of reserve pumpers and trucks remains unclear after the chief admitted the numbers given to the City Council were wrong.
An investigation by the firefighters’ union found some apparatus listed as being in reserve had actually been sold by the city.
Late Wednesday night, Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe announced the deputy chief in charge of fleet, Wayne Branch, had retired and a replacement had been named.
Chief Ellerbe did not respond to repeated requests for comment Thursday. Instead, a deputy chief addressed reporters’ questions about the current state of the fleet.
An investigation by the firefighters’ union found at least six pumpers and two ladder trucks listed as being in reserve had actually been sold. Some on the list had been out of service for years and still others unaccounted for.
In a press release issued Wednesday night, Chief Ellerbe said the numbers given to the City Council last month were from an “old fleet schedule.”
On Thursday, at the fleet maintenance shop in Southwest D.C., FOX 5 tried to contact Deputy Chief Branch to ask him why the inaccurate numbers were given to the council, but we were told he was not in his office.
Outside, the streets around the shop are filled with broken-down ladder trucks, pumpers and ambulances.
Some of them appear to have been stripped for parts.
One ladder truck on the street is on the list given to the council as being one in reserve and ready to take a front-line spot in any of the city’s firehouses.
The deputy chief now in command of the fleet says it will take some time to wrap his arms around the problem.
“What I can tell you is we have a reserve fleet,” said Deputy Chief John Donnelly in an interview Thursday. “We are going to get to the bottom of those numbers right away and we are going to make sure we have enough fire trucks on the road to meet the needs of the community.”
As of Wednesday night, the firefighters’ union said the fire department had no reserve ladder trucks and the one from Shaw was sent to Brightwood — leaving Shaw uncovered.
“I’m sorry,” said Donnelly. “I just don’t have that answer right this second. I’m sure if we needed a ladder truck, we would find a way to get one together and put it in service.”
The numbers given to the council back on February 20 also listed 106 EMS transport units. It is a number the firefighters’ union has not been able to confirm.
Deputy Chief Donnelly says he will spend the next few days completing an audit in hopes of coming up with an accurate number.
“I’m not going to spend a lot of time examining backward of who has done what or who hasn’t done what,” said Donnelly. “I’m going to fix it going forward and starting immediately.”
In the last two weeks, ambulances have been unavailable for a stroke victim who was instead transported to a hospital in a pumper and a D.C. police officer seriously injured in a hit-and-run, raising questions about the readiness of the EMS fleet.
FOX 5 also tried to contact the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul Quander for comment on the readiness of the reserve fleet, but he did not return several email messages.
Branch was the first man to publicly take the fall for the ongoing issues within the D.C. fire department.
He testified before the D.C. Council last month about the readiness of emergency vehicles. Branch retired just five days later.
It turns out the number of units he told the council were ready and in service was inaccurate. Some have no doors. One had no compartment door for more than a year. One has been listed out-of-service since 2010. One has been in a scrapyard in Wisconsin for the past four years.
“When you see us struggling to do day to day operations, I can’t imagine a terrorist event or a natural disaster,” says Ed Smith, D.C. Firefighters Union president.
Smith is referring to multiple incidents where ambulances weren’t available.
Last Tuesday, a D.C. motorcycle officer waited in the street 20 minutes after suffering a broken leg during a hit and run. He was eventually picked up by a Prince George’s County ambulance.
But the fire department, and the man taking over for Branch, maintains it was all a miscommunication and the fleet is fine.
“We are going to make sure we have the resources that we need and if we don’t we are going to go find them and we are going to get all this stuff up here so we are ready to meet the needs,” says John Donnelly, incoming deputy fire chief.
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