D.C. Probe Seeks Account of Ambulance Whereabouts

March 8, 2013
After a D.C. police officer was transported by a Maryland ambulance, it was learned that a quarter of the district's 39 ambulance were unaccounted for that night.

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.

As officials continue to investigate the fire department's response, more details emerged Thursday about the three men arrested in connection with the crash that injured Officer Hickman. Court documents state that Kevin Maurice Burno, the 24-year-old driver, had been drinking alcohol "all day" before the crash and that Officer Hickman had signaled to Mr. Burno to turn on the headlights of his Lexus just before the officer was struck.

After police got Mr. Burno into custody, he acted erratic and incoherent, attempting to urinate on and then strike a heater at the 6th District police station, according to a police affidavit filed in D.C. Superior Court. When Mr. Burno was taken to the D.C. Jail, six bags of a "green weedlike substance" and one bag with "six white rocklike substances" were confiscated from his possession, as were the keys to the Lexus, which were found "secreted in his buttocks."

Mr. Burno was charged with aggravated assault while armed while the two passengers in the Lexus - James "Antonio" Parks, 22, and Darrin Twisdale, 25 - were charged with being accessories to the assault.

Officer Hickman has undergone two surgeries thus far for his injuries and officials said he could have a long road to recovery.

Fraternal Order of Police Chairman Kristopher Baumann has called Tuesday's incident and the lack of an ambulance to transport an eight-year-department veteran "inexcusable" and criticized the leadership of Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe.

"When you look at his tenure, it is full of examples of mismanagement from mechanical problems to attrition issues to staffing and overtime," Mr. Baumann said. "The D.C. Council cannot continue to overlook mismanagement when we are dealing with life and death situations."

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