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D.C.’s fire and emergency medical services department is taking heated criticism over poor response times and a series of embarrassing maintenance issues. Chief Kenneth Ellerbe said this week the department is buying new ambulances and hiring new paramedics. But union members and lawmakers still question his leadership. Ellerbe joins us in studio to discuss his vision for fire and emergency medical services, and how to keep District residents safe.
- Kenneth Ellerbe Chief, D.C. Fire and EMS Department (FEMS)
D.C. Fire Chief On New Ambulances, Paramedics
D.C. Fire and EMS Chief Kenneth Ellerbe talks about a plan to boost the district’s ambulance fleet and hire more staff. “We know we’ve made some mistakes. There have been some challenges, but those challenges are slowly but surely being corrected,” Ellerbe said.
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Matt McCleskey, local host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU, sitting in today for Kojo. Later in the broadcast, the music and images from the 1963 March on Washington. But first, few local agencies in our region have taken as much heat this summer as the District's Department of Fire & Emergency Medical Services.
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYIt's weathered reports about slow response times, which resulted in at least one death earlier this year. More recently, there's been an avalanche of concerns about the basic preparedness of the city's ambulance fleet. But Chief Kenneth Ellerbe said this week that his department has turned a corner. He announced the acquisition of roughly two dozen new ambulances and announced the hiring of 20 new paramedics.
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYStill, some city lawmakers and rank-and-file union members continue to raise questions about whether the department's leaders are capable of carrying out its core mission of keeping people safe. Joining me now to talk about all this, Kenneth Ellerbe, the chief of the District of Columbia's Fire & Emergency Medical Services Department. Thanks so much for being here.
CHIEF KENNETH ELLERBEThank you. Thank you for having me.
MCCLESKEYGlad you can be here. I think it's fair to say this has been a long, hot summer for you. People -- some have called on you to resign. Others have called the department an embarrassment. But you said this week's news about the ambulance fleet and the paramedic hires shows that the department is turning a corner. How so?
ELLERBEWell, first, I want to correct the introduction.
ELLERBEI don't want to say that our slow response resulted in a death, OK?
ELLERBEWe weren't responsible for the death, and there are other circumstances to take into consideration. But regarding our ambulances, we're ordering -- we plan to receive 30 new ambulances before the end of the year, which is an unprecedented number in any one calendar year. In addition to that, we put in some measures that will allow our citizens to see us responding quicker. Our response times are improving, and our arrival on the scene with critical care has improved.
ELLERBESo, you know, we look at the way we've done business. We know that we've made some mistakes. There have been some challenges, but those challenges are slowly and surely being corrected. Our response times now are one minute better than they were in March. So we are improving.
MCCLESKEYMoving in the right direction.
MCCLESKEYHow many of these new ambulances are brand-new? How many of them are refurbished? I understand it's a mix.
ELLERBERight. It is a mix. The first six that we receive will be refurbished. That way, we could get those in quicker. But when you refurbish an ambulance, it's like having a brand-new ambulance with a brand-new title. The next seven will be brand-new, and then the 23 that we receive after that will be brand-new.
MCCLESKEYSo I just wanted to make sure, there's no difference than...
ELLERBEThe 17 we receive will be brand-new.
MCCLESKEYOh, got it. But in terms of how they can function, it's not like necessarily buying a used car that has a number of miles on the roadway.
ELLERBENo, they're sent back to the factory, and they're remanufactured using some of the older parts. But they use -- everything they use is like having a brand-new unit. In fact, some of us are scheduled to go to the factory to make sure that we're getting the best product.
MCCLESKEYNow, the other part of your announcement this week involved the hiring of new paramedics. When you joined WAMU 88.5's Politics Hour program this past spring, you said that the department's paramedic shortage was part of a nationwide trend. Outside of hiring these new paramedics announced this week, what do you think the long-term strategy needs to be to hire people with this kind of expertise or to cross-train firefighters?
ELLERBEI think there should be a variety of strategies. The first one, of course, is to hire paramedics. What we found during this hiring process is that some folks who provide emergency medical care don't wanna be firefighters. Prior to April, we were hamstrung, in a sense, by the way the code was written. We could only hire dual-role providers, which means a firefighter paramedic or a firefighter EMT.
ELLERBEDuring the interview process and talking to folks, some folks wanna provide that service, but they don't wanna be firefighters. So we need to be able to hire single-role providers who wanna do the job. The next thing we have to be able to do in D.C. is train paramedics. There's no facility in Washington, D.C., that trains paramedics. We attempted -- we made a valiant attempt to establish a program with Prince George's County Community College.
ELLERBEBut, unfortunately, due to the way the contract was structured and the different policies that we have to adhere to, we weren't able to do that. So we'll be looking at the D.C. -- UDC Community College so we can do that.
MCCLESKEYIn the long run, how many paramedics do you think the department needs to hire versus how many it has now?
ELLERBEIt's hard to say how many we need to hire. I know that we wanna have the department fully staffed. Twenty percent of the work that we do is advanced life support, OK? Now, if you start talking about numbers versus the amount of calls, we might think that 20 percent might be enough in terms of our critical care emergency medical providers. I don't know if that's the right number or not.
ELLERBEI'd rather have our medical director and outside consultants who we are consulting with now discuss that with us and give us a -- give us some guidelines. We don't wanna lock ourselves into any complete number. And the way I worked before in Sarasota, the firefighters were paramedics, and quite frankly, they took that job very seriously. They enjoyed the fact they were paramedics and kind of looked at folks who provide lesser services, EMTs, as employees that they -- that should be inspired to do what they did.
MCCLESKEYJust -- well, given the new ambulance purchases announced this week and the new hires of paramedics, can residents of the District of Columbia be assured that should there be an emergency and they need an ambulance response, there'll be one coming in a timely manner?
ELLERBEThey should be assured now, and they should have always been assured. The District Fire & EMS Department responds to over 100,000 calls a year, and 99.9 percent of the time, we get it right. Unfortunately for us, what folks have always seem to focus on is that .001 percent -- that's .01 percent -- where we haven't gotten it right. And that's the stuff that we focus on as well. Anytime we don't do it right, we take it seriously.
ELLERBEWe take it as a learning experience, and we try to move forward. So folks should always think they're safe in D.C. And one of the things that does irritate me a bit is when people try to indicate that we don't have a good fire department or fire and EMS department 'cause we do. We have one of the best fire and EMS departments in the country.
MCCLESKEYWe're talking with D.C. Fire & Emergency Medical Services Chief Kenneth Ellerbe. We'd like to hear from you as part of this conversation. You can give us a call, 800-433-8850. That's 800-433-8850. You can also send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also get in touch with us through our Facebook page or by sending a tweet to @kojoshow. One other thing that's come up this summer, you mentioned 99.9 percent of the responses are good.
MCCLESKEYCertainly something that's been in the news, though, is something not good, this summer, there's been a couple of ambulance fires that have taken place. And the circumstances surrounding those, it seems, are not 100 percent nailed down. There's been some suggestion that maybe there was something going on that might have led to them being if not intentionally set, something done that might have led to that.
MCCLESKEYI believe the deputy mayor said the police should look into whether or not something untoward may have happened. What can you tell us about these ambulance fires and the status of any investigation?
ELLERBEAnytime one of our equipments, a piece of equipment malfunctions like that, it's a serious concern. It's an ongoing investigation, and that's all I can tell you about that. I think one ambulance actually caught on fire. The other one may have been steaming as opposed to burning. So, you know, I wanna clear that up as well.
MCCLESKEYOK. Well, fair enough. There's nothing else to add while that investigation is going on.
ELLERBERight. As long as the investigation is going on, we'll just wait. But let's talk about hiring people from Washington, D.C., our DOES program where we train citizens to be emergency medical technicians. And that gives them an opportunity to work for the D.C. Fire & EMS Department. That's a program that we've never had before. It was something that was started by this administration, and it's something that seems to be working very well in our communities.
MCCLESKEYAre you seeing more city residents as new hires?
ELLERBEYes, we are. In addition to that program -- and I wanna thank Director Lisa Mallory for that -- we also -- we still have our cadet program. We've hired a number of young folks from Washington, D.C. And nothing is more rewarding for me than to see that young person come in the door and then see them transform into a firefighter EMT because they're all trained as emergency medical technicians as well.
MCCLESKEYCertainly with older hires, there have been some friction between the union and yourself personally, the relationship, maintaining with the firefighters and with their union. Things at times have been pretty testy over the summer. Police, in fact, opened an investigation this month into a complaint that you had assaulted a firefighter at an ambulance fire. Now, I know you told The Washington Post there was no physical confrontation there. Can you tell us anything else about what did happen and led to that allegation?
ELLERBEI'm not gonna talk about it. I don't even know that an investigation has started.
ELLERBEI have not been contacted by the police. But if there is, well, I'd rather not comment on it now.
MCCLESKEYOK. Regardless of that particular complaint or whatever is going on there, how would you address someone who's concerned about overall relations between management at the fire and EMS department and the union?
ELLERBEWell, I would, first of all, look at what management has done. We purchased new equipment. We purchased the best uniforms that money can buy. We are hiring people at a relatively steady pace, not a rapid pace, but a steady pace. We're providing all of the responsibilities that management is responsible for our employees. Now, when it comes to labor management relations, you know, that is what it is.
ELLERBEWe wanna see the union and the labor groups come to the table. We have -- we think we have a very healthy compensation package available and expect to get that either through arbitration. But I'd much rather see us be able to do it and stay put together.
MCCLESKEYWhat are the most important things in that process that need to be squared away, you know?
ELLERBEOne of the things that I proposed and probably the nexus or the impetus for a lot of this testiness is a shift change. You know, 75 percent of our employees don't live in Washington, D.C. That's fine. But when you work 24 hours and you're off for 72 hours, it makes it very -- it would make it very difficult for us to call back our entire force if necessary, if a major catastrophe occurred in the District.
ELLERBEI see the biggest complaint from our labor organization is the disruption that (word?) it would cause to our employees' lives, and I understand that. I also want folks to understand that this is a very serious job. This is a job that requires sacrifice. This is a job that you're required to report to work for, and that's something that we take very seriously.
MCCLESKEYI know there have been other issues in recent years with a lot of employees calling in sick, many of them perhaps on the same day. What's been your take on that? Is it something you think is coordinated, or is this just happenstance?
ELLERBEI wouldn't say that it's something that's coordinated, or I wouldn't say it's something that's not coordinated. All I would say about that is we need our employees to come to work.
MCCLESKEYMm-hmm. So that's bottom line.
ELLERBEBottom line. Ninety-six days a year is not a lot to ask for our employees to come to work. The majority of them do an outstanding job, coming to work and doing a fantastic job. When we have 100 employees that don't show up out of a maybe 349-member force for that day, that's almost one-third of our department not coming. That could present a problem. We've had to scramble at different times. Management has had to scramble at different times to make sure that we still supply the service that the folks in the District deserve, and we've done that.
MCCLESKEYOf course, I would imagine when you're down on the number of people who can work on the streets, there have been instances when you've had to perhaps cut the number of ambulances available on a given day?
ELLERBEVery rarely do we actually cut the number of ambulances. We may reduce this level of service, from advanced life support to basic life support, and on occasion, we do have to put an ambulance out of service. That's one of the things that I don't like to see happen, and it's one of the things that we're trying to prevent. Now, if we have been able to come to the table and initiate the shift change that I provided, we would have had 80 extra employees per shift, which means we would have been able to absorb 100 employees not showing up by maybe having additional 20 folks come back to work.
ELLERBEBut it's something that has created a sense of contention, to a degree. But I think it's the right thing for the District of Columbia, and it's the right thing for the citizens of Washington, D.C.
MCCLESKEYAnd we're talking to the D.C. Fire & Emergency Medical Services Department Chief Kenneth Ellerbe here on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Matt McCleskey, sitting in today for Kojo. Our listeners, you can take part in this conversation. 800-433-8850 is the number to call. You can also send us an email at email@example.com. We are gonna go to the phones now. We wanna hear from Kip (sp?), calling from Washington. Kip, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KIPYes, hi. I'd like the director to kind of clarify his statement about 99.9 percent of the time and getting it right. I mean, that was -- that statement is meant to sound like a statistic, and it's not any kind of statistic. And if it is, I mean, where can I find that on the -- on your website or on your, you know, literature? I mean...
ELLERBEKip, that wasn't a statistic. That was just a -- it was hyperbole than anything else.
KIPThat was an assertion. Right. That was an assertion by you, right. So...
ELLERBEThat is not even actually an assertion. It's just a number that I threw out, 99.9 percent. No, I can't say that with any great degree of accuracy.
KIPRight. So that's why I'd like to know like what are the statistics? I mean, you know, 'cause you're on this show and making assertions about we're doing a great job. I mean -- and I'm sure you are. I'm sure your people are working really hard. But like instead of, you know, hyperbole or whatever you wanna call it, like give us some statistics, please.
MCCLESKEYWell, thanks for your call, Kip.
ELLERBEYeah, thank you for calling. And what we can do is start putting our statistics on our website. That way, folks can judge for themselves how well we're doing or, you know, what's going on. And I did have a conversation with the deputy mayor last night, talking about our out-of-service times, our response times and other areas that the city might be or folks might be concerned about. So I appreciate Kip calling me on that to a degree. But -- and we can put that stuff up.
MCCLESKEYI took it to mean you were saying the vast majority of the time. But it's possible to put some of the specific numbers up -- make them available to the public?
ELLERBEAbsolutely. And in fact, we included these numbers -- we included some graphs in our press conference yesterday. We'd be happy to put those up so that folks can see it. And that's exactly what I meant. Majority of the time, we do get it right.
MCCLESKEYI'd like to turn now to an email from Mike in D.C. He says, "Since you had said that people not showing up to work is the biggest challenge to the daily staffing problem," he asks, "how does hiring more single-role paramedics address this problem?"
ELLERBEWell, when we have a firefighter EMT, it has to work on a paramedic unit. We can take that firefighter EMT and put them back on a fire truck. We can put the paramedic on the paramedic unit.
MCCLESKEYHe has a second question as well. He says, "How do you justify wanting to change the work shift of employees from a current 42-hour-on-average workweek to what he calls the three-three-three schedule, requiring people to work 56 hours a week?" Is that a fair question?
ELLERBEIt's a fair question. And it does two things. That three-three-three shift allows us to bring 66 percent of our workforce to work every day. That's the first thing. The second thing is there was a court case that require -- that actually told us we should have gone back to a three-platoon system quite a while back. So I'm trying to adhere to the law as it was prescribed a while back and also provide much better service to folks in Washington, D.C.
MCCLESKEYIn terms of working some of these things out with the union, what's the timetable? And what's coming up next in terms of...
ELLERBEWell, I think the next thing is arbitration and mediation before a binding arbitrator. I want folks also to understand that our employees work a 24-hour shift right now. Eighty percent of the work that we do is medical work. The medical community has recognized that a 24-hour shift is a very difficult and arduous task for anyone to perform.
ELLERBEThe second half of a 24-hour shift could be dangerous for our employees as well as the people we provide service to because of medication have to be administered. And we want our folks to be alert at all times, which is why I was trying to go back to them working only 12 hours at a time.
MCCLESKEYAnd that 80 percent number, is that -- the other 20 percent being fire response?
ELLERBEJust about, yes.
MCCLESKEYEighty percent fire. OK. Well, let's go to -- or 80 percent medical and 20 percent fire, I should say. Let's go to another caller now. Melissa calling from Washington, D.C. Melissa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MELISSAYes. I want to praise the work that you have been doing because in the last couple of years, my husband and I called for -- called 911 a couple of times, once for him and once for myself, and they were very fast and very professional. Thank you very much.
ELLERBEThank you. Thank you. And I want to thank our members for that. They do an outstanding job. As much as you may see in the media with the stuff that you see, you don't see all the stuff they do. I mean, our folks respond every day, 24 hours a day. And like I said, it's over 150,000 calls that we take every year. So, you know, the credit goes to them. I thank them as much as I can. And we get Redskin tickets. And sometimes we'd call them. They don't know why we called in their house
ELLERBEAnd just for our members, if you're listening, if you see the phone number from the fire chief's office, we may be trying to do something nice for you. We've had a family bequeath us some Redskin tickets. They do it every year. And we try to look at letters that we receive about the good work our folks do, and we give the tickets to them.
MCCLESKEYWell, certainly asking questions, and I think valid questions about some of the things that have come up in the news over the summer don't, by any means, mean to disparage the hard work of fire and EMS workers that are out trying to help people in the city each and every day.
ELLERBEMm-hmm. I understand.
MCCLESKEYLet's turn to another call now. Daniel calling us from Washington. Daniel, you're on the air. Go ahead.
DANIELThank you. Chief Ellerbe, the excessive use of ambulance sirens is destructive to the people's health in this city. It's destructive to your staff. And it's destructive to your patients, like heart attacks, asthma and epileptic and pregnancy. We are oppressed, repressed, assaulted by the ambulance sirens in this city. It is clearly not necessary the way the sirens are blaring from one point to the other point. The law requires that you use sirens when it is clearly necessary.
DANIELNow at 25 miles an hour, these drivers are perfectly capable of driving safely and can use that siren when it is clearly necessary. We don't need this obsessive, excessive use. You know, your personnel problems are because your staff is disgruntled from a chief who's been arbitrary and vindictive, and that is damaging and creating an unsafe situation.
MCCLESKEYWell, let's take those questions perhaps separately. First, just like to ask you, chief. What is the policy for use? And is there such a -- what will be excessive?
ELLERBEThe code vehicles -- there is a code titled vehicles in traffic that requires us to use lights and sirens when responding in an emergency mode. So we're gonna follow the law. If we're not following the law, if we're not using our siren and we have an accident, then, you know, as litigious as Washington, D.C. is, that's something I'd have to deal with.
MCCLESKEYAnd have you heard any other similar complaints that sirens are being used too often?
ELLERBEWe hear complaints about that sometimes about the sound of the siren. But the siren is there to warn passersby, drivers and pedestrians that an emergency vehicle is approaching, try to get them to a stop when we get to a red light so we can proceed safely to get our client to a hospital.
MCCLESKEYAnd Daniel said a couple of other things I just like to give you a chance to respond to. He also mentioned in terms of you being arbitrary and vindictive in the relationship with the employees. I just want to give you a chance to respond.
ELLERBEWell, arbitrary is an arbitrary term that I don't want to even have to try to discuss. And vindictive, I hear that often -- well, not often. I hear it sometimes, and I would like for Daniel to take a look at the definition of vindictive. Nobody has done anything to me. This is the greatest job I've ever had in my life. So I have no reason to be vindictive.
MCCLESKEYFrom your perspective, what is the root of some of the distance between the union and management of the department?
ELLERBE(laugh) It's classic. It's historical. It's labor versus management, labor and the chief. I mean, if you wanna be liked a lot of times, this is probably not the job for a person to aspire to in this environment. We're trying to make a lot of changes, and change is not easy. Change is difficult. Change is scary. Some folks don't embrace it. And they wonder what it means. And one of the ways to resist change is to resist policy and maybe point a finger to the person that's initiating the change. I understand that.
ELLERBEBut some of our changes have been extremely good. We've changed the way we do our procurement. I gotta thank Director James Staton for helping us get through the procurement process quickly and in terms of purchasing our apparatus. Our changes are improving quality of service. Our response times have been reduced. So, you know, we are making some headway, and I appreciate that. I understand that some folks can't embrace it and, you know, it's part of it.
MCCLESKEYWhen you were on The Politics Hour here on WAMU back in the spring, you admitted then that you're going through a cooling off period with the union. They had just conducted, in fact, a no-confidence vote on your leadership. After all that's happened since, how, going forward, do you restart contract talks with them in a positive way? Can you mend fences or is it still...
ELLERBEI'm willing to mend fences. That's up to the labor organization. I made that statement yesterday during the press conference. I'm willing to mend fences. We need to move forward. We are showing our commitment in terms of equipment. We've shown our commitment in terms of hiring personnel. So those complaints are slowly but surely gonna have to go away. The next thing is the contract. I am very committed to Washington, D.C., the residents here in Washington, D.C. And the mayor has shown us his full support with a $24 million infusion of cash to buy this apparatus.
ELLERBESo we are trying to move forward, and hopefully the union will see that and they'll be able to embrace this at some point. It's not about me. It's not about them. This is about the District of Columbia, the citizens, the residents, the visitors here in Washington.
MCCLESKEYAnd you, of course, served at the mayor's prerogative. He, this week, with this announcement, seemed to be giving you solid support.
ELLERBEWell, the mayor understood the plan that we were trying to initiate. And one thing that leaders have to have, and the mayor has, and I thank him for his support and Deputy Mayor Paul Quander, they have vision. They have the ability to see what the future's gonna look like. And that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to move this department into the future.
MCCLESKEYD.C. Fire and EMS Chief Kenneth Ellerbe, I wanna thank you so much for joining us today here on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
ELLERBEThank you. It's been a pleasure.
MCCLESKEYAnd this, of course, is the 50th anniversary today of the March on Washington. We're gonna take a short break now. When we come back, we're gonna get an update on what's going on today on the Mall, also talking about some of the iconic images and sounds of the march 50 years ago. I'm Matt McCleskey, local host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU, filling in today for Kojo. Stay with us.
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