WASHINGTON (AP) -- The beleaguered fire and EMS department in the nation's capital is adding new paramedics and ambulances to its ranks, but the new hires and equipment still leave the District of Columbia well short of the staffing levels in similar-sized cities.
Mayor Vincent Gray and Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe announced Tuesday that nine new paramedics and 30 new ambulances will be on the streets by year's end. In addition to the paramedics, the department will bring on 60 new firefighters by the end of 2013 from its recruit and cadet programs. Seventeen are military veterans.
The department has 35 paramedics working at any given time, 14 of them on ambulances, and has struggled to provide timely emergency medical care. The Associated Press has reported the district is trying to make do with less than half the paramedics employed by urban departments that respond to similar numbers of medical calls -- more than 130,000 a year in the district.
"Earlier this year, the department's ability to respond to emergency medical calls was at a tipping point," Ellerbe said. "We're now in a position to turn the corner."
Despite the new hires, the department has no plans to increase the number of paramedics deployed at any given time. Union leaders say the new paramedics, whose start dates have not been set, will merely allow the department to downgrade its advanced life support ambulances less often. An ambulance is downgraded when it's staffed with only EMTs, who lack the training to administer drugs or intervene in complex medical emergencies.
Firefighters' union president Ed Smith said the department has been downgrading roughly five ambulances a day because of absences and short staffing. Firefighter-paramedics have frequently been asked to work 12 hours of overtime after their 24-hour shifts because the department is so thin, union leaders say.
Before the new crop of paramedics, the department had hired just two since 2011. More than 40 have left the department during that time.
The new paramedics will ride only on ambulances. The department had not hired these paramedics in nearly a decade. In 2007, a task force recommended the department move toward cross-training all firefighters as paramedics, and vice versa, but as of now, fewer than half of the department's 200 paramedics are firefighters. Advocates of cross-training say it promotes departmental unity and allows employees to respond to any emergency.
Paul Quander, the city's deputy mayor for public safety, said the new paramedics will be given an opportunity to become firefighters, but with the need for paramedics so pronounced, the department didn't want to limit itself to those who are also interested in fighting fires.
Although there will be no immediate changes to how paramedics are deployed, Ellerbe said Tuesday he would resubmit a plan that has already been rejected by the D.C. Council. Under the proposal, more paramedics would work during the day, when call volumes are highest, but the city would be left without a single paramedic on an ambulance in the overnight hours.
"I think that once they see that we do have the ability to provide employees and vehicles, that they may take another look at the plan," Ellerbe said.
The new ambulances will help refurbish the department's fleet, which has fallen into disrepair. Earlier this month, two ambulances caught fire on the same day, and the department has been using ambulances that are more than a decade old. Also, a faulty fuel gauge caused an ambulance that was supposed to travel with the president's motorcade earlier this month to run out of gas at the White House.
Smith said he welcomed the new hires and vehicles, but he said the chief has not proactively addressed the department's problems.
"Buying apparatus and hiring people should be part of everyday business," Smith said, "and this wouldn't even be a newsworthy event if that was the case."
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