Union Says Paramedic Got Drydocked After Sending Letter to DC Council

The fire department's rank-and-file worries that one of its own might have been taken off ambulance duty after complaining to lawmakers about staffing shortfalls.

By: Benjamin Freed

Here comes the the latest fissure between the DC Department Fire and Emergency Medical Services and the union that represents the city's firefighters and paramedics. A paramedic who sent a letter earlier to the DC Council this week complaining that the agency is woefully understaffed has been taken off of street duty, says Ed Smith, the president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 36.

Smith says the medic, Jon Botwin, has been detailed to "day work," meaning that he'll be station-bound rather than riding out on emergency calls. A spokesman for the fire department says that Botwin is involved in an internal investigation, though he will not say if the letter plays a part in the inquiry. But Smith smells another conflict bubbling up between the department and its rank-and-file.

"A medic reached out doing a whistleblower act about the stress and burnout level firefighters and medics are facing, so the department pulls him off the street," Smith tells Washingtonian.

Botwin sent the letter on Sunday, a few days after he failed to resuscitate a five-month-old girl who entered cardiac arrest. According to Botwin's letter, there were two paramedic units closer to the girl's home when her father dialed 911, but because they were understaffed that day, they could not be dispatched. The infant later died at Children's National Medical Center.

According to WTTG-TV, which first reported the story of the little girl's death and Botwin's letter, the fire department says it dispatched an engine carrying emergency medical technicians that took three minutes to arrive at the North Capitol Street apartment of the girl's father, Phillip Bolden. Botwin's team, coming from over two miles away, needed eight minutes to get there.

Frustrated with the day's events, Botwin took to writing his letter to the Council, saying that the fire department faces a "dire situation."

"The few paramedics remaining are frustrated, we are burning out, and there is no end in [sight]," Botwin wrote. "It is only getting worse, and I stress it is only getting worse."

Fire department employees have long complained of broken-down equipment, short staffing, and their broad rejection of their boss, Chief Kenneth Ellerbe. The department was embarrassed last month by two ambulances catching fire (on the same day, no less), as well as one breaking down while escorting President Obama's motorcade. Yesterday, the department demoted a deputy chief who oversaw equipment repairs in the wake of photos showing that some emergency vehicles had been repaired with street signs.

But Ellerbe, by all accounts, continues to have the backing of Mayor Vince Gray. Last week, the two unveiled the first of 30 new ambulances the city is scheduled to take possession of and announced the hiring of nine new full-time paramedics. Meanwhile, the department continues to refute accusations that it is ill-equipped to handle the District's emergencies.

"The thing that gets lost in people's complaints or criticisms is that we are fully staffed with the number of FTEs that we're actually allotted from a budget perspective," says department spokesman Tim Wilson. "By and large, the complaints about staffing is an inaccurate complaint."

As for the report of Botwin being removed from ambulance duty, though, Wilson declines to comment. "It's a matter that's being investigated internally and the department won't issue a comment," he says. "It may have to do with the letter.

Tommy Wells, the DC Council member who runs the committee overseeing the fire department, says it is too early to tell just what prompted Botwin's duty change, but he hopes it was not the letter. "I prefer not to speculate, but i do think there's a public interest when someone raises concerns about public safety," he says.

UPDATE 6:08 PM: A person familiar with the situation surrounding Botwin says the paramedic might be in more trouble than a simple re-assignment—he might have broken federal law. According to the source, the District's information and privacy office says Botwin violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a 1996 federal law intended to prevent unauthorized disclosures of private medical information.

UPDATE 9/6/13: Ed Smith, the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 36, refutes the claim that it was the union that publicized Botwin's letter. "I learned of the letter from the media," he says. "I got it after the fact." As for the allegation that Botwin violated HIPAA, Smith says that the investigation into Botwin is still in its early stages. "We're going to take it one step at a time," he says. The source, who insisted on anonymity, says that had Botwin sent his letter only to Council members and not his union, which publicized it, he might not have been punished. "That's why he's in so much trouble," the source said.

Read Botwin's letter:

Council Members,

I have the unfortunate duty to once again remind you of the importance of paramedic staffing. It has been well over a year that myself and others have raised a red flag and repeatedly explained how critical the situation is. You have heard testimony and testimony explaining that huge numbers of firefighter paramedics have left the Fire/EMS Dept. You have also heard testimony that verifies that no new hires have been made. You have heard conjecture that Kenneth Ellerbe hasn't been able to hire paramedics because they didn't want to be firefighters. He then explains that he has hundreds of applications of single role paramedics, only to find he has only been able to hire 9. You heard him speak of a internal paramedic training class and all the people signing up, only to find that the entire program has been canceled until further notice. When will you hold the fire chief accountable, maybe the following will connect with you.

Thursday August 29th was another typical hot summer day. Unfortunately for a 5 month old little girl, this would be her last. This little baby girl, had a serious medical emergency. She was in cardiac arrest when her father called 911. He expected to have a fully staffed and functional department to respond, but no that is NOT what he received. The two closest paramedics to his location were left un-staffed that day and it was a unit traveling from farther away that came to help his little baby. When your daughter is dying, do you want to wait for a paramedic? Do you want to hear excuse after excuse? NO, You want the city, the Nation's Capitol to have the resources to save that little girl. The paramedic's that did respond did the best they could with there delayed situation, but unfortunately that little baby died at Children's Hospital. She wasn't able to be saved.

How do you think that feels to be those providers stuck in this awful situation? I should know, I was one of them.

Now I ask you how many babies, grandmothers, police, or even our own firefighters need to suffer at the hands of this ridiculous mis-management. On Thursday night Aug 29th, only 20 of the 42 paramedic positions were staffed to serve the city. That's less than half. You have read how we operate with less paramedics than any other city of similar size, and that's with full staffing. Our city is in danger and that baby is just another unnecessary casualty.

Enough is enough, The few paramedics remaining are frustrated, we are burning out, and there is no end in site. It is only getting worse, and I stress it is only getting worse. The citizens are suffering, we are suffering, and remember it might be you dialing 911 next.

We are in a dire situation, there is no easy fix now. It has been left to crumble to far. If immediate action doesn't happen I can only imagine the casualties that will occur. I can't stress how real this is.

Ask yourself; if your child's school had only half the teachers needed, would that be OK? If your neighborhood had only half the police it was supposed to have on patrol, would that be OK? Then ask yourself why in the world is the Nation's Capitol continually operating with less then half of our highest trained medical providers. There is no excuse.

I hope to hear from you,

Sincerely,

-- Jon Botwin