Fire at Webb Elementary in 2012.
Earlier this year, we were one of the first to report deplorable fleet tracking and maintenance issues at the DC Fire and EMS Department. Fire officials provided false records to the DC Council about the fire engines, ambulances, and other equipment needed to save lives. Officials overstated fleet inventory, misstated records, and some vehicles listed as “in use” were found to have been sent to the scrap yard years ago. Most concerning, no one seemed to know how many fire trucks and ambulances were owned by the city, much less how many were available for use.
Over the summer, maintenance problems plagued the city’s fleet, with claims that not enough ambulances were available to handle the city’s call load. To reassure the public, Mayor Gray announced that DC would place 30 new ambulances in service to ease problems. So far, says a fire department official, approximately a dozen new ambulances have been placed in service, but they don’t seem to be the magic bullet.
A tipster provided copies of what appeared to be maintenance documents apparently discarded in a city trash can on a public sidewalk near a DC government facility. We confirmed the authenticity of the documents with a senior official in the DC government with knowledge of fleet operations, who acknowledged the data was consistent with FASTER, the fire department’s fleet maintenance tracking system. He explained that the “availability” of a vehicle is calculated by dividing the number of hours a vehicle is not down for maintenance by the total number of hours in the period.
For example, in a 24-hour day, an ambulance may be taken out of service for maintenance for 6 hours due to an issue that would risk patient care. For that 24-hour period, the ambulance was out of service for 6 hours but available for 18 hours, thus 75% availability.
According to city records, ambulance availability hovered between 70-80% from October 2012 through spring of 2013. That is, on an average 24-hour day, the average ambulance may only be available to work 17 hours. During the summer, when the plethora of equipment problems came to light publicly, the average ambulance was available less than 35% of the time- about 8 hours/day- according to the maintenance documents.
After that, however, the city has placed renewed focus on getting its lifesaving vehicles in tip-top shape, and placed new ambulances into service with much fanfare. The public was reassured time and again that the problems were being resolved, and that earlier reports were blown out of proportion. As the city added 12 new ambulances, surely availability would increase, perhaps significantly.
However, for the quarter ending September 30, 2013, the Department’s fleet tracking system shows that ambulance availability dropped to an appallingly low 17.03%.
That’s right- even with a dozen brand new ambulances, the city’s medical response may still be suffering, with DC’s 111 ambulances able to respond to emergency calls about 4 hours per day on average.
Why is that? The numbers certainly raised some interesting questions. Namely, why is the ambulance fleet down 83% of the time, even with a dozen new ambulances in service?
One fire official we spoke with says just yesterday (October 24) the department had to remove 17 units from service during a single 8-hour shift. Reasons for the downtime included engine warning lights, fuel system problems, radio failure, oxygen system leaks, and more. One unit was even down due to a staffing shortage due to FLSA public safety regulations.
But even the new ambulances have troubles. According to one official we spoke with, the city decided to save money and use older, used stretchers on the new ambulances. Since the new ambulances are a few inches taller than the old ones, the old stretchers don’t line up properly, causing stretcher brackets to prematurely fail.
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The raw reports from the DC Fire & EMS fleet tracking system (FASTER) are below: