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DC update: Washington Post editorial again backs Chief Ellerbe. TV station gets documents that confirms department’s staffing issues.

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Watch WRC-TV/NBC 4 report I-Team: Seeing through the Smoke

Whatever ails the DC Fire & EMS Department, the Editorial Board of The Washington Post remains convinced it isn’t the fault of Kenneth Ellerbe. In fact, despite all of the recent headlines the Editorial Board continues to believe Chief Ellerbe is the man who has the plan for the future. This is consistent with the Post’s previous editorials on the subject. Here are excerpts from the editorial published yesterday:

Chief Ellerbe, we’ve noted before, has made some missteps, but he’s on exactly the right track in wanting to bring new accountability to a department mired in the practices and traditions of the past. Indeed, the problem with the department is not that there’s been too much change but that Chief Ellerbe has been hamstrung — by a restrictive union contract and intrusive council policies — from retooling it so that the needs of the public, rather than the wishes of the rank and file, are the main priority.

The main mission of the department is no longer simply fighting fires but also providing emergency medical services in a way that most efficiently serves the public. So while it may be in the interest of firefighters to have a schedule that requires just eight or nine workdays a month and allows them to have second jobs far from the District, that’s not in the best interests of the public that has to pick up the tab. And while it may to be to the advantage of the union that the department hire only paramedics who are firefighters, it makes sense for the city to meet its demand for paramedics by hiring people whose main role is to provide these critically needed emergency medical services.

Chief Ellerbe has dared to challenge the status quo on these and other issues, and that’s why he’s been made a target. If he were to be forced from office — an effort that troublingly is being enabled by some council members who should know better — prospects of reforming the department would be dealt a severe setback.

Also yesterday, WRC-TV/News 4 I-Team investigators Tisha Thompson and Rick Yarborough finally get some answers from the department after a year-and-a half of trying to obtain documents about the department’s staffing. It sheds some more light on how things got this bad.

It’s one of the most troubled agencies in our area, where a mistake can mean life or death.

Ambulances catching fire. A D.C. police officer waiting 15 minutes for medical help after a hit-and-run. A local man who eventually died after waiting 20 minutes for an Advanced Life Support Unit to arrive.

The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services, or DCFEMS, also has one of the most contentious relationships in the city, with both sides telling very different versions about why things seem to go wrong inside the agency.

So the News4 I-Team fought a legal battle for more than a year-and-a-half to get paperwork from the city, hoping to shed light on what’s really happening inside the city’s fire department.

We finally got the documents.

They show there are some serious problems inside DCFEMS, starting with the sheer number of unfilled positions.

According to the union, known as the DC Firefighters Association Local 36, it takes 360 people to fully staff all positions on any given day. The union claims there are as many as 250 unfilled positions.

Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe says it’s actually 96.

But according to the staffing records we obtained, the number is more in the middle – 181 vacancies as of June.

“The reality is we’re in such a hole,” says union President Edward Smith. He says the city just hasn’t kept up with hiring over the past few years.

The staffing records we obtained show that is the case, with as many as 15 to 20 paramedics leaving each year without being replaced.

“My gut reaction is we don’t have enough,” says Smith. “Way behind.”

Why is that important? DCFEMS says one out of every five calls requires a paramedic. Smith says only paramedics can intubate a patient, administer life-saving drugs and use complex defibrillators. Everyone else is an EMT who can provide “Basic Life Support” like CPR.

The city is supposed to have those paramedics on 14 “Medic” units and 21 “Paramedic Engine Companies” to provide “Advanced Life Support.” But if there aren’t enough paramedics to fill these vehicles, the units are “downgraded” to a basic life support ambulance or regular fire engine.

Smith says the hardest hit areas are in the city’s highest demand areas – in wards 6 and 7.

He says there are now so many unfilled paramedic jobs, the ones who do show up to work are being forced to work 12-hour mandatory overtime shifts after they’ve finished their regular 24 hour shift. (See how much DCFEMS employees make.)

When we visited his office in Northeast, Smith pointed to a graphic the union has created of every paramedic unit each day. When you look at July 2011, you can see a smattering of yellow boxes designating the unit on a specific day has been downgraded.

“It wasn’t a medic unit, it was a regular ambulance,” Smith explains.

Then he flips through July 2012. Many more yellow boxes.

By July 2013, the yellow boxes dominate the screen.

Smith randomly points to July 8 of this year and starts counting the number of units downgraded during that day’s AM shift. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11” he counts out loud and he points to yellow boxes. “Eleven out of the 14 supposed Medic units are supposed to be staffed. Three of them were in. The picture tells the whole story.”

Not quite, says Chief Ellerbe.

“People have to come to work,” he says. “That’ll keep those boxes from turning yellow.”

Chief Ellerbe says employees only work 96 days out of the year.

The city is already investigating why almost a third of all firefighters called out sick this past New Year’s Eve.

But now the News4 I-Team discovered in the city’s downgrade documents we obtained that the highest number of downgrades in a recent six-month period occurred Christmas week – 18 downgrades on Christmas Eve and another 21 on Christmas Day.

Chief Ellerbe says, “People have to come to work. We expect folks to come to work whether it’s a holiday or not and that’s just the bottom line. This job requires sacrifice and we know that coming in. The pay is good, the benefits are good and we expect folks to respect the fact they have a job to do.”

Even Chief Ellerbe says it is time for a pay raise, especially for paramedics who are in such high demand throughout the country. But, he says it’s been difficult getting anyone to even apply because of an old DC law that also required paramedics to be firefighters.

“A lot of employees who want to be EMS providers don’t want to be firefighters,” he says.

Chief Ellerbe says in April, he convinced the DC government to create a variance that would allow him to hire people only as paramedics. Suddenly, he says, the applications started flooding in.

“We’re not running from this stuff. We know we can make things better.”

He then said he plans to make a “big announcement” in the next week about hiring a large number of employees and bringing on an “unprecedented” number of new ambulances.

But he wouldn’t give us specific numbers. We’ll bring you an update as soon as we get it.

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