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Private Ambulances Start Helping D.C. Fire Department Respond To Medical Calls

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A fleet of 35 private ambulances will help D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services respond to medical calls for the next year.
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A fleet of 35 private ambulances will help D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services respond to medical calls for the next year.

If you called 911 for a medical emergency in the District last week, D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services would have responded — and transported you to the hospital. But starting today, you may well be getting a ride from a private ambulance.

A fleet of 35 privately operated ambulances hit the streets in D.C. on Monday, part of a plan hatched by D.C. Fire & EMS Chief Gregory Dean to lighten the load on a department struggling to keep pace with mounting calls for medical attention. As part of the year-long program, ambulances from American Medical Response — a private company contracted by the city — will transport patients facing non-life-threatening situations to area hospitals.

"When they call 911, D.C. FEMS will still arrive at their house," says Dean of how the new initiative will impact residents. "After they do an assessment of the patient, they’ll make a determination if the patient is stable and in a non-life-threatening situation. We will then call for an AMR to transport the patient to a hospital. If the patient is not stable… D.C. FEMS will continue to transport the patient."

Dean, who was hired by Mayor Muriel Bowser last year, proposed the $9 million initiative as a means to help the department and its 39 ambulances — many of which have faced mechanical issues from overuse — handle what many officials say is a spike in the number of medical calls in recent years.

"Right now we’re running about 500 calls a day. What that means is we have a tremendous amount of out-of-service time and we continue to run out of ambulances on a daily basis to be able to provide service," says Dean.

Dean says the AMR ambulances — which will operate from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. — will offer the department a degree of respite as it takes in 30 new ambulances over the next year, which will be used to supplement the city's existing fleet. He also says it will allow him time to consider permanent options for reforming the department, which has attracted criticism over the last decade for numerous botched responses to emergency calls.

"We’ll be tracking a lot of different data if it’s working or not working, such as how much more time are we spending on training, what is our preventative maintenance program look like, what is our response time, what is our availability. We’ll be tracking all that compared to where we are and see what happens," he says.

Dean's third-party ambulance initiative drew criticism from Dr. Jullette Saussy, who until last month served as the department's medical director.

"[It's] a privatization in order to 'fix the problem,' which is a workaround rather than cleaning your own house first and then supplementing as needed," she said on WAMU 88.5's The Kojo Nnamdi Show.

Though the initiative is set to run for a year, Bowser has requested an additional $12 million from the D.C. Council to extend it if it's needed.

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