The District's Fire Department recently came under the watchful and sometimes critical eye of D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson who heads the Committee on the Judiciary, which oversees the department.
A recent hearing held in the Council Chambers inside the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest, to discuss "The Status of Emergency Medical Services in the District of Columbia," focused primarily on a plan by Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe to redeploy the resources of the Emergency Medical Services (EMS). The plan garnered opposition and resistance was laid bare by the comments of some union leaders and the rank-and-file during the more than four-hour hearing.
Ellerbe testified along with almost two dozen people and he detailed the plan which he said would help the department put resources where they were needed most.
"We developed this plan based on the findings of an extensive analysis of EMS calls by day, time and location," said Ellerbe, 53. "Annually, our department responds to more than 160,000 calls; at least 80 percent of those calls are for emergency medical services, resulting in more than 100,000 patient transports to local hospitals."
Ellerbe said the research shows that the demand for EMS services is the highest between the hours of 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.
He said in an earlier interview that the plan has encountered resistance because of the proposed changes which would affect about 1,000 employees each month.
"It's a bold and risky step. We're taking the culture in a completely different direction," Ellerbe said. "People are not as thrilled as we'd hoped."
Ellerbe said one fire union president said the hours were too long, and the work too hard. The plan would require an increase in the hours worked from 84-96 percent per pay period.
Edward Smith told Mendelson that he's met with "continued indifference to the problem."
"I wish I could understand the indifference," said Smith who requested protective disclosure rights to avoid retaliation. "This is well below the required amount of Emergency Medical Technicians [EMTs] and they're holding people over when staff isn't available."
Smith, president of Local 36, D.C. Fire Fighters Association, said EMTs are required to work 12- hours shifts after a 24-hour shift, and in many cases, staffers are denied in-service training.
"People are denied the opportunity to broaden their horizons and professional knowledge so that they can move to truck companies and rescue squads," said Smith. "People get promotions but are stuck in the same position."
As Ellerbe changes the tone and tenor of the department, he has encountered stiff opposition in some quarters. For example, more than 100 firefighters walked out on Ellerbe last year as he concluded his "State of the Department." They were protesting a new schedule Ellerbe was attempting to implement. He sought to make the changes because of mistakes he said employees made on the second half of 24-hour shifts. His critics characterized the move as a de facto residency requirement which would affect those firefighters living outside of the city. Firefighters have also been upset about the chief's decision to change the patch that is emblazoned on uniforms, equipment and vehicles.
Smith is one of Ellerbe's fiercest critics and they have been at odds for a while. Negotiations between the union and management has stalled and last year, an arbitrator found that Ellerbe unlawfully retaliated against Smith by transferring him from his work assignment after Smith publicly criticized him.
Mendelson, 60, at one point, took Ellerbe to task for not making a more conscientious effort to meet with Smith and other union members.
One of the unspoken problems that continues to roil the department is the racial tension. One black firefighter remarked that when other fire chiefs implemented policies no one complained but now that Ellerbe was doing the same thing, people are agitated.
That divide was illustrated in the Council Chamber. To the left of the dais sat dozens of white union members and across the room was a phalanx of predominantly black members, the vast majority in uniform.
Joe Papariello, EMS Committee Chair for Local 36, said the staff is not being properly managed.
"We need more staff during the daytime," he said. "They're robbing 'Peter' from the dayshift to staff the nightshift."
He said the department has lost 37 EMS employees since Ellerbe became chief and he accused him of refusing to rehire those who left and wanted to return. Papariello said he and his colleagues remain committed to the department's mission.
"No matter what challenges members face, we'll bring the best we can to safeguard the public," he said.
Jonathan Moore, of the International Association of Firefighters, was also critical of the plan.
"We need to return to the drawing board. They're using an outdated and untested calculation for this model. It should not be implemented haphazardly," he said.
During the hearing, Mendelson constantly referred to cultural issues – of firefighters wanting to put out fires but not do the EMS portion of their work. Several fire department employees who testified agreed that that is an issue with Smith saying "there may be some outliers."
Mendelson had a difficult time ascertaining the correct number of EMTs in the department from Ellerbe and his staff. One estimate had the number between 225 and 250. And as he studied the documents he'd been given, Mendelson became more frustrated.
"I'm a little bit disappointed. There's not a clear answer or discussion of the number of paramedics," he said. "... You don't say what numbers you're short by. Nowhere in this calculation is there accounting for vacations, leave or vacancies."
Mendelson said he'd asked for attrition rates for the past five years and the number of EMT employees at the beginning of October for the last five years but Ellerbe couldn't readily provide the numbers Mendelson requested. And an Ellerbe staffer blamed a PeopleSoft program for the difficulties they have had coming up with the numbers.
During his testimony, Ellerbe said the plan would increase and enhance EMS coverage around the city. He said increasing this coverage during peak periods by having more transport vehicles and paramedics available is the best way to solve this problem.
"Our folks do some of the best work in the country and now I want them to step up and demonstrate their commitment," Ellerbe said.