DC Fire Department Audit Says Emergency Vehicle Fleet Is in “Overall Poor Condition”

A very bad report card for DC’s already embattled fire and EMS department.

By: Benjamin Freed

An audit released today about the DC Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department contains unsettling news for anyone whose house is on fire or who needs to be transported to the hospital. The department’s fleet of 369 fire engines, ambulances, and other vehicles is in “overall poor condition,” according the 200-page report.

The fire and EMS department orderd the audit this past summer, following several embarrassing moments for the agency and its chief, Kenneth Ellerbe, who is deeply unpopular with the 1,800 rank-and-file firefighters and paramedics. In one notable incident, city ambulances were unavailable to pick up a Metropolitian Police Department officer injured in a motorcycle accident, instead leaving the job to Prince George’s County paramedics; during one summer weekend when many ambulances were out of service, the city was forced to hire private ambulances to pick up the slack; an ambulance on a call spontaneously caught fire; and in September, a paramedic was reprimanded after he publicly blamed the ambulance fleet’s poor condition for the death of a five-month-old girl.

DC’s fire truck and ambulance fleet is badly overworked, according to the audit, which was compiled by the Washington consulting firm BDA Global. “The apparatus inventory we conducted revealed a fleet that is aging, showing signs of excessive wear-and-tear, and in overall poor condition that is reflective of years of hard, urban emergency driving compounded by unstructured and deferred preventative maintenance and repairs,” the audit found.

The report also charged that the fire and EMS department keeps its vehicles longer than an ideal 15-year lifespan, the latter half of which is recommended to spent as reserve units.

Even with the department’s announcement in August that it is in the process of acquiring 30 new and used ambulances, the maintenance problems are creating significant gaps in emergency services for DC residents. At any given time, the audit found, between 70 and 86 percent of the emergency fleet is available to respond, compared to an industry standard of 95 percent.

Mayor Vince Gray has stood by Ellerbe, and said today that problems with the fire department go back nearly 20 years. The audit lays some of the blame for the current issues on low procurement figures during the mayoralty of Gray’s predecessor, Adrian Fenty.

But other officials with sway over the fire department were quick to voice their displeasure with the audit’s results, including Council member Tommy Wells, who is running for mayor and also chairs the committee that oversees the department.

“The audit shows that there is not an accountable system to ensure that our fleet is repaired, accounted for and replaced,” Wells said in a statement. “Our ambulances and fire trucks are critically important to public safety and need to be in the best repair possible so they can quickly get to residents in all parts of the city.” Wells is holding a hearing about the audit’s results on December 4.