As a three-alarm fire ripped through a D.C. seniors facility in September, firefighters discovered that the ladders on Trucks 13 and 16 didn’t work and needed to be replaced with a reserve truck.
But there was no reserve, so they were forced to pull a truck — Tower 3 — that was being repaired in the maintenance facility.
Meanwhile, the ladder on Truck 7 became stuck and was in danger of catching fire while 10 firefighters battled the blaze on the roof of the Arthur Capper Senior Public Housing building. Ordinarily, there should be two ladders to allow firefighters to escape from a roof; on that day, there was only one.
Lt. Robert Alvarado watched from the collapsing roof as a firefighter wrestled the ladder away from the flames.
“I’ve never been so scared of going to a fire as I am now,” said Lt. Alvarado, an 18-year veteran of the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, speaking Tuesday during a town hall meeting at the Metropolitan Police Academy at Blue Plains.
The fire department has fallen behind in buying new vehicles and has allowed repair orders to pile up, forcing stations to scramble with broken or insufficient engines and trucks, said five sources in the department and documents obtained by The Washington Times.
“About 90 to 95 percent of our vehicles have something mechanically wrong with them that keeps festering,” said one senior department official familiar with safety oversight, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I’m talking about everything — reserve fleet and everything.”
FEMS spokesman Doug Buchanan told The Times that the “vast majority of the fleet has passed inspection” according to a spreadsheet of annual D.C. DMV inspections.
But recent inspection reports he shared from Underwriters Laboratories indicate only 65 percent of engines’ pump systems and 77 percent of trucks ladders have been tested and quality certified this year — “a significant improvement” Mr. Buchanan says from the department not certifying the equipment prior to 2015.
“I do think it’s important to note that Fire EMS is very different from where we were 10 years ago,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen, Ward 6 Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. “But we also need to address where we have a lot of work left to go.”
The department has long struggled with failing brakes and broken ladders in its aging fleet of engines, ladder trucks, ambulances and rescue squad vehicles, but sources said untrained mechanics and a failure to replace vehicles have allowed problems to persist. The department recently purchased new vehicles but fewer than the number recommended by D.C. auditors.
In addition, FEMS Special Order 2007-66 requires the department to keep in reserve 30 engines and nine ladder trucks to replace vehicles that break down in the line of duty or to provide water support. And FEMS’ “order book” of duties and protocols directs the Apparatus Division to maintain 38 reserve vehicles.
The Times reviewed a random sampling of 20 fleet condition reports from September and October and found that the department had two reserve engines for the city for half those days. On five of those days, only one reserve engine was available. On three days — Oct. 22, 23 and 26 — there were no reserve engines. No reserve ladder trucks were listed for any of those 20 days.
“It’s unfathomable that a public safety agency is run this way,” Lt. Alvarado told The Times.
Dabney Hudson, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association IAFF Local No. 36, said a lack of reserve vehicles “creates a hole in the service map” and forces stations to cover for one another, leaving some neighborhoods without adequate protection and with longer response times.
Mr. Buchanan said the department has followed the vehicle purchase recommendations of a 2013 audit since 2015, adding that the “vast majority of the fleet has passed inspection.” But he also acknowledged the low number of reserve vehicles.
“We are completely, completely unprepared for any kind of large incident,” said Lt. Bowie Kuhn, a 33-year veteran who works on Rescue Squad No. 1 — an 18-year old vehicle he says has had multiple engine replacements. “We know if our rig breaks down, there is nothing for us to get on.”
FEMS employs 1,938 firefighters and paramedics, who responded to 201,524 emergency calls in 2017, up from 130,870 in 2015, according to department data.
‘There is no plan’
Edward Mills, assistant fire chief for operations, said during Tuesday’s town hall meeting that the upcoming closure of Providence Hospital and the nearly 1,000 people who move to the District each month will cause longer travel times for ambulances.
More calls means more miles on the vehicles, which already are overwhelming the department’s mechanic shop in Southwest. All five sources who spoke with The Times said the shop struggles to complete simple maintenance like replacing tires or changing oil quickly, and vehicles can wait for months in the shop for more complicated repairs. One source said an oil change for his ambulance took 12 hours.
In 2013, the District paid Business Development Associates LLC $183,000 to audit the fleet. The contractor recommended 129 items to restore the fleet from its “critical state,” including training mechanics who all lacked certifications to work on emergency vehicles. Its 194-page audit also recommended that the department reorganize the shop, which was “an accident waiting to happen” because of crowding, oil spills and poor ventilation, as well as poor records of repairs.
The shop is still crowded, with vehicles in need of repair filling its parking lot and lined along the street.
Mr. Buchanan, the FEMS spokesman, said that only two of shop’s 23 mechanics have completed training for their Emergency Vehicle Technician Certification.
The D.C. Council two years ago enacted a law requiring all mechanics be certified by October 2019 after the 2013 audit’s recommendation for the requirement had gone unheeded.
FEMS spends an average of $1.5 million a year to outsource repair work, Mr. Buchanan said.
“But if the citizens only knew it’s really a gamble if something is going to work or break down,” said the senior department official, adding that he fears more road accidents are likely.
In March, Engine 26 crashed into a car, killing the driver and injuring a pregnant woman, at 12th Street and Rhode Island Avenue Northeast. According to Fox 5 News, the engine’s brakes had failed and the camera on its front did not have a memory card to record the accident. The same engine crashed into a police cruiser in 2015 because of faulty brakes, Fox 5 reported.
In February, a crash between Engines 8 and 19 on Capitol Hill revealed that one had expired inspection stickers and both vehicles’ cameras didn’t work, Fox 5 reported.
John Donnelly, assistant fire chief for professional development, told The Times that all new vehicles come equipped with working cameras, and Mr. Buchanan says the department has a plan to fix the old ones.
Mr. Hudson said Engine 26 was reassigned to another station as Engine 28, and before that it was Engine 16. The rotation, he said, is meant to provide vehicles to high-call stations and recycle them to lower-call areas before retiring them. But when repairs aren’t performed right, the vehicles’ problems are transferred to other stations.
“There is absolutely no plan in terms of rotating front apparatus in reserve status,” the senior department official said. “There is no plan they’re following.”
Mr. Buchanan said there is a plan to track vehicle conditions and rotate them accordingly, but it is not in effect while FEMS purchases new vehicles for the next six fiscal years.
“Once this is accomplished we will conduct and implement the rotation policy,” the spokesman said in an email.
According to the 2013 audit, the fire department needed to purchase 59 new engines, 26 ladder trucks, nine rescue squad vehicles, and 86 ambulances over the next 10 years to restore the fleet. Since then, FEMS has bought 24 engines, five ladder trucks and 16 ambulances.
On Tuesday, Fire Chief Gregory Dean touted the department’s $99 million budget for purchasing vehicles until fiscal 2023; however, the numbers fall below the audit’s recommendations.
“We do need to increase the number of resources that we possess,” Chief Dean said, “but that is part of the budget process.”
Mr. Allen said he intends to “aggressively push” for money to buy more vehicles and to build a new mechanic shop.
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