A quarter of the District's 39 ambulances were unaccounted for on the night a D.C. police officer injured in a hit-and-run accident had to be taken to a hospital by a transport unit from Prince George's County, city officials said Thursday.
"Roughly 10 of those ambulances were unavailable and we want to know why," said Pedro Ribeiro, spokesman for D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray. "We want to know why those ambulances were not providing the services needed."
Officials, who pledged to conduct a formal investigation into the incident, have verified that the other 29 ambulances were in the process of either responding to calls for service or transporting patients Tuesday evening at about 6:30 p.m. when a Metropolitan Police Department officer on a motor scooter was struck by an apparent drunken driver.
With no D.C. ambulances responding, an ambulance from neighboring Prince George's County eventually was dispatched to the scene. Though a D.C. paramedic arrived on a fire engine within about eight minutes from the call, it was still 30 minutes until the county ambulance arrived and was able to transport Officer Sean Hickman, who suffered multiple fractures to his left leg, to a hospital.
An official with knowledge of the investigation, who discussed the situation on background in order to speak candidly, said six of the 10 ambulances reported mechanical issues close to a 7 p.m. shift change, another two were out of service in order to sanitize between calls, one was low on fuel and another provided no reason for being unavailable.
Because of the proximity to the shift change, investigators are regarding the six ambulances that reported mechanical issues with suspicion, the official said. But union officials have pointed to long-standing maintenance, staffing and communications issues as possible aggravating circumstances in Tuesday's incident.
D.C. Fire Fighters Association President Ed Smith, who identified four ambulances with which there were mechanical issues, said it was still unclear whether any reserve ambulances were brought in to replace those that reported problems.
Neighboring jurisdictions sometimes provide "mutual aid" for one another, but Tuesday's incident, coupled with a New Year's Eve incident in which a D.C. man died from a heart attack after waiting 40 minutes for an ambulance, has highlighted what another union official calls a "system failure."
"It's not uncommon for us not to have any units at that time of day because it's a busy time," said Kenneth Lyons, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3721, which represents the department's civilian paramedics. "We've got a real problem and it's just going to get worse."
D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, the head of the council committee with oversight of the police and fire departments, pledged to hold a hearing on Tuesday's incident as well the New Year's Eve lack of response.
"To any degree which an ambulance was delayed either due to administration or employee fault is unacceptable," said Mr. Wells, Ward 6 Democrat.
Mr. Wells promised to dig into the District's long struggle with delivery of emergency services and said he expects the hearing in two to three weeks to cover concerns dating back to the 2006 death of New York Times journalist David E. Rosenbaum, who was beaten during a robbery as he walked near his Northwest home. He died two days later. An inspector general's investigation resulted in findings of an "unacceptable chain of failure" in the response to the medical call and "alarming levels of complacency and indifference" on the part of first-responders.
Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul A. Quander Jr. said he hopes an internal investigation will shed light on what the department can do to avoid any delay of ambulance service in the future.