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Police to probe D.C. ambulance fires

Wednesday - 8/14/2013, 8:56pm  ET

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The D.C. Firefighters Association Local 36 released this photo of a D.C. ambulance with an aluminum street sign placed in the engine block as a heat shield. The city says four ambulances were found with the temporary fix and at least two of those have received replacement parts. The union says the red and white sign is a parking sign. (Courtesy D.C. Firefighters Association Local 36)

WASHINGTON - A pair of ambulance fires Tuesday and the news that street signs have been used as spare parts are the latest problems facing the District's struggling Fire and EMS Department.

In the past few months, ambulances have broken down, one ran out of gas on the way to a call at the White House and a lack of working ambulances has slowed response times. But even for a fire department with regular maintenance issues, word of multiple ambulance fires in a single day raised eyebrows and has prompted a police investigation.

"One ambulance catching fire is an unusual event. A second ambulance catching fire raised concerns for me," says Paul Quander, the deputy mayor for public safety and justice.

He has asked Metropolitan Police Department to investigate whether "anything untoward was taking place."

Quander took questions about the latest ambulance woes following a news conference Wednesday. He refused to speculate on who or what could be behind the ambulance fires.

"If there is anything that is criminal, then (police) will take the appropriate action. If not, then that information will be relayed to me and we'll proceed from there," he said.

Police would not have otherwise been involved in the investigation. Quander requested the investigation on Tuesday.

He doesn't believe a police investigation of incidents involving the fire department says anything about the department's leadership.

Quander also responded to a question about an ambulance on a White House call running out of gas.

Chief Kenneth Ellerbe was out of town at the time.

"He's not responsible for putting gas in an ambulance," Quander said.

The D.C. Firefighters Association Local 36 said it "welcomes any and all investigations into the root cause of these mechanical breakdowns" and recommends that the National Transportation Safety Board investigate the entire Fire and EMS fleet for any and all safety violations.

The union charged the administration with neglecting the fleet, choosing to apply new logos on the ambulances instead of performing preventative maintenance and using shortcuts such as placing aluminum street signs inside the engine blocks as heat shields.

In a statement released Wednesday evening hours after his press conference, Quander says the aluminum street signs were installed as a temporary fix and have been removed.

Quander says the signs were installed last month when the ambulances' air conditioning failed. The signs were intended to serve as a temporary heat shield.

The firefighters' union alerted a department official of the temporary fix Monday but that official did not take immediate action, Quander says.

Four ambulance had the signs installed as of Wednesday. Two later returned to service after having new aluminum parts installed, according to the city.

Police investigators say neither of the ambulances that caught fire Tuesday had street signs installed in the engine block.

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