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Emergency breakdown: D.C. ambulances triaged

A coolant screen is being removed from the fuel cooler in all of the fire department\'s newer ambulances. (WTOP/Andrew Mollenbeck)

WASHINGTON — The District of Columbia Fire Department is making changes to more than a dozen ambulances in hopes of fixing the potentially life-threatening problem of breaking down during an emergency.

A coolant screen is being removed from the fuel cooler in all of the fire department’s newer ambulances. About 15 vehicles are impacted, most of which are between 2 and 3 years old, spokesperson Lon Walls says.

Just over a week ago, an ambulance taking Nathaniel McRae to the hospital after he was shot by police broke down on Route 295.

Another ambulance picked up the patient, but McRae was pronounced dead at the hospital. It is not known whether the delay contributed to his death.

“Our preliminary results indicate that a coolant screen in the fuel cooler was clogged, and this caused the engine to sense a problem and then prematurely shut it down, so we are removing these screens from all the vehicles we have that are relatively new,” Walls says.

He says the issue has occurred more than once.

“What happens is that there is an indication that the screen might be clogged, which automatically will cause a sensor to shut the engine down,” Walls says. “We’re removing the screens because we see that they’re really not necessary.”

Although the fire department initially blamed the problem on emissions regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency, Walls says this change is not connected to the requirements that exhaust filters remain clear of soot.

“We won’t be dealing with EPA certification on this because this is not specifically an engine regeneration issue,” Walls says.

The change was first reported by NBC 4.

“Whatever it takes to not have a unit shut down when it’s in service, I’m all for,” D.C. Fire Fighters Association Local 36 president Ed Smith says.

“I guess the proof will be in the pudding.”

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