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EMS Redeployment Plan Causes Ripples

Barrington M. Salmon | 1/2/2013, 7:53 a.m.

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.