Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad wants to end agreement to handle DC emergency calls

Since at least 1947, the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad has helped D.C. respond to medical emergencies in city neighborhoods near the Maryland border. But now, the longtime chief of the fire station is recommending that it’s time for that special agreement, which allows for the extra coverage for the nation’s capital, to come to an end.

“It’s really time to really take a look at this and ask if what worked in 1947 is working in 2021,” Fire Rescue Chief Edward “Ned” Sherburne said.

Speaking of the Chevy Chase DC Advisory Neighborhood Commission in June, Sherburne said in recent years, DC Fire and EMS has boosted its capability in the area he feels no longer needs the extra support from his paramedics.

“I think that the capabilities of D.C. now have improved to the point where I think we’re hampering responses and not helping,” Sherburne said.

The agreement allows some residents in Northwest D.C. to call for help one of two ways, either dial 911, which connects them to DC Fire and EMS; or they can call the Bethesda-Chevy Chase fire station directly.

Sherburne said the number of D.C. residents calling his station has dropped dramatically over the past 20 years. In 2003, he said his paramedics responded to around 1,413 D.C. calls for service; in 2020, the total number of calls were 381.

He said responding to D.C. calls are also leading to confusion, as residents are not clear of what his fire department can offer them.

And when callers use a 10-digit number to reach them, Sherburne said they can’t pinpoint a location based on a phone call, like 911 call takers can. The level of service his station can provide is limited, he said.

“That is a concern, you know, that we have to resolve; and I think again, one of the better ways to do that is to maybe let 911 do its job,” Sherburne said.

In a statement to WTOP, DC Fire and EMS Chief John Donnelly Sr. said his department has been in close contact with Sherburne and Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service regarding the current memorandum of understanding.

“We extend our thanks to the BCC Rescue Squad for their long service to the District of Columbia and support this transition, which both parties recognize is a reflection of the District’s improvement in EMS service in recent years,” Donnelly said in an email.

Donnelly also said a mutual aid agreement with Montgomery County will remain in place, and used when needed.

“The DC Fire and EMS Department has a strong presence in the Chevy Chase neighborhood with both Basic and Advanced Life Support resources sufficient to meet all calls for service,” Donnelly wrote.

During a meeting June 29, ANC Commissioner Michael Zeldin expressed his concerns about what is being proposed.

“I’m just worried that the recommendation to not serve this community when you are as close to it as any emergency response unit is not in the best interest of the community without regard to whether it’s on one side or the other of Western Avenue,” Zeldin said.

D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh, who represents Ward 3 said DC Fire and EMS has not always been able to adequately cover the neighborhoods covered in the agreement, but she said times have changed.

“Sometimes, it takes a long time for reputation to catch up to reality,” Cheh said.

Cheh said as discussions begin about ending the agreement, she hopes a new one could be reached, where if a D.C. resident calls 911 and if a Montgomery County ambulance is closer, that ambulance could respond.

Sherburne said the fire house will continue to respond to calls from D.C. residents, and the call to end the agreement is only a recommendation at this point. He said public input will be taken as the future of the agreement is debated.

He also said even if both sides agree to keep the arrangement, there could be another roadblock to renewing the agreement: new rules requiring the Montgomery County Council to approve any new deal. Right now, Sherburne said, support from county leaders he’s spoken to is not there.

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Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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