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Report Raises Questions About D.C. Fire Readiness

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A new report from the District of Columbia’s inspector general raises further questions about whether the fire department has enough trucks to respond to major emergencies, and the D.C. councilmember who oversees the agency said he was losing confidence in its leadership.

The report found that numerous fire trucks designated as reserves by the department were not available. For example, of the dozen trucks listed as reserves in July 2012, the most recent month covered by the report, only one was available for deployment. Five were already in use, and six were out of service — including one that had been broken down since 2010.

The department is required to have a dozen reserve trucks to ensure readiness in the event of a major emergency. The requirement was put in place after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

At a D.C. Council hearing last month, fire officials said they had 29 operational ladder trucks, including 13 in reserve. But the district firefighters’ union pointed out that four of the reserve trucks had either been sold or were inoperable. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe said he unintentionally gave inaccurate information to the council.

But the inspector general’s report, which highlights some of the same deficiencies in the reserve fleet, was delivered to the fire chief the day before the hearing. It was released to the public on Friday.

“It certainly undermines my confidence in the management of the fire department,” said Councilmember Tommy Wells, who chairs the council’s public safety committee and presided over the hearing. “If they used the information that they provided me that said the reserve trucks are available when they’re not even in the District of Columbia and we don’t even own them anymore, then that tells me there’s a massive breakdown of administrative competence.”

Ellerbe said in a statement that he was already implementing the report’s recommendations and that the department was in the process of purchasing new vehicles, including ladder trucks and ambulances.

The fire department’s management of its ambulance fleet has also come under scrutiny. On March 5, a D.C. police officer was injured in a hit-and-run accident and had to wait 15 minutes for an ambulance from neighboring Prince George’s County, Md.

An internal investigation found that of the 39 ambulances on duty at the time, 30 were responding to other calls, six were out of service for legitimate reasons and three were improperly listed as out of service. The report placed the blame for the slow response on individual employees rather than systemic failures. But Wells said he was also concerned about why no reserve ambulance was put into service to replace one that was undergoing scheduled maintenance.

The large volume of emergency medical calls in the district — there were more than 160,000 last fiscal year — has strained the fire department, and Ellerbe has proposed a radical change to firefighters work schedules so that more will be on duty during the day. The firefighters’ union has resisted the proposed schedule change, arguing that more resources are needed to handle the call volume in the fast-growing city.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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