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Gray, Ellerbe Say D.C. Fire And EMS 'Turning Corner'

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One of two new D.C. ambulances on display during a press conference on Tuesday.
Patrick Madden
One of two new D.C. ambulances on display during a press conference on Tuesday.

After months of problems with the fire department's fleet of ambulances, D.C. Mayor Gray announced brand-new equipment for the agency and is promising more reliable service.

Nine new paramedics and 30 new ambulances will soon be on the streets of D.C. The new hires and equipment were on display outside Engine Company 2, where the mayor held his press conference on Tuesday.

'Turning a corner' on EMS service

Dozens of new firefighters, pulled from its recruit and cadet programs, were seated in the audience, including 17 military veterans.

Mayor Gray said the new equipment will help make emergency medical care in D.C. more reliable and pledges the vehicles will hit the streets soon.

"If we don't have all 30 of those ambulances that have been promised by this provider in by the end of the year, I will terminate this contract," Gray said.

The fire chief, Kenneth Ellerbe, also pledged to improve service. He noted that ambulance response times have improved over the past few months, and said it will only get better with new equipment.

"We are turning a corner, it will take us until December to get all 30 ambulances in," Ellerbe said.

Unions express skepticism

But the new vehicles did little to ease tensions with the local fire fighters union, which has been in a constant battle with Ellerbe and Gray.

"Buying apparatus and hiring people should be part of everyday business and this wouldn't even be a newsworthy event, if that was the case," said Union president Ed Smith. "Labor management is strained, almost non-existent. The membership voted 'no confidence' back in March. And recently you had the deputy mayor accuse members of 'untoward' acts."

The "untoward" acts? After a pair of ambulances caught fire on the same day, the Gray administration ordered the police to investigate whether the vehicles were damaged on purpose.

Ellerbe declined to address the issue. When asked if there is sabotage going with rank and final on the equipment, Ellerbe was terse.

"I don't want to comment on that. Thats just inflammatory and I do not want to comment on that," Ellerbe said. "We will let the investigation work its way through the process, we will be guided by the results."

Gray also reaffirmed his support for Ellerbe, who has not only battled the fire fighters union but the D.C. Council as well. Council member Mary Cheh called for Ellerbe to step down earlier this summer.

Gray dismissed the criticism from the council: "Are they qualified for the chief's job, are they applying for it?"

Cheh later responded on Twitter, writing, in her words: "I dont have to be a engineer to know if a bridge is falling apart anyone can see that the fire department is being run into the ground."

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