City officials have asked police to investigate two fires that occurred Tuesday aboard D.C. ambulances amid a series of embarrassing failures with the District's emergency medical fleet that has affected everyone from regular residents to the president of the United States.
The fires - and the unusual request for a police investigation - occurred on the heels of disclosures a day earlier that an ambulance had to be pulled from President Obama's motorcade on the grounds of the White House last week because it ran out of gas, possibly because of a broken fuel gauge, and 10 days after another ambulance caught fire outside a D.C. hospital.
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Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul A. Quander Jr. said late Tuesday that he had asked the Metropolitan Police Department to examine what officials in a statement called the "highly coincidental occurrence of experiencing two vehicle fires in the same day."
"I want to be certain that nothing untoward is occurring to these vehicles that could possibly put the public at risk," Mr. Quander said.
The first fire began around 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, while Ambulance 27 was on a medical call in the 4700 block of Benning Road Southeast. Photos and videos taken at the scene showed the unit, which was left idling while the crew attended to a patient, with flames pouring from its engine compartment as it sat in a parking lot in front of a row of homes. No one was injured in the fire.
Later in the day, crews were dispatched to MedStar Washington Hospital Center after black smoke began spewing from another ambulance.
D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services spokesman Tim Wilson said an air compressor in the ambulance malfunctioned around 4 p.m., causing the fire as a crew finished transporting a patient to the hospital. No one was injured in that incident, either.
The unit involved, Medic 7, was the same company called to replace the ambulance that ran out of gas at the White House last week. But it was unclear Tuesday night whether the vehicle itself was the same ambulance that was called in to accompany the president.
An Aug. 2 fire also occurred at MedStar Washington Hospital Center and involved an ambulance that also came from the same fire station as the ambulance involved in the fire Tuesday. Fire officials said at least two of the ambulances involved are different models. The ambulance that caught fire Tuesday morning is an older model unit - a 2006 Ford used as a reserve - while the unit that caught fire Aug. 2 is a 2011 International model.
Mr. Wilson said the Aug. 2 fire was believed to have started with an electrical issue in the ambulance's battery compartment.
An arson investigator was looking into the Tuesday morning fire, but union leader Ed Smith said that is standard practice. He called the request for a police investigation "unusual."
"We welcome any investigation because I don't think there is any wrongdoing," Mr. Smith said.
Suggestions that employees were destroying equipment would not be unprecedented. A department official speaking with investigators for the D.C. Office of the Inspector General in 2011 accused employees of sabotaging ambulances by breaking air conditioner lines or purposely burning out their transmissions.
Mr. Smith said the breakdowns are a result of a neglected fleet that has fallen into a state of disrepair under Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe.
"All these things we've been talking about for 2½ years are coming true, and I don't see a light at the end of the tunnel," Mr. Smith said. "Whether it's the president of the United States or any resident, the citizens of the District deserve better service."
The fire department maintains 94 ambulances, though not all are functional, with 39 units on the street at any given time.
The department's ability to respond to emergencies, as well as the state of its beleaguered fleet, has come under repeated scrutiny this year after a series of ambulance breakdowns and staffing issues. In addition to several high-profile incidents when ambulances have not been able to respond to emergency calls, the fire chief acknowledged in March that the department had been operating for more than a year with an outdated list of department apparatus that included vehicles that had been sold or scrapped.
A total of 67 ambulances had to be taken out of service for repairs during one week in July after high temperatures caused the ambulances' air conditioning units to break down.
The department is undergoing an audit that will evaluate the state of the city's fleet and propose recommendations for maintenance and other oversight. Officials are also in the process of buying additional ambulances.
D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, has addressed the ambulance issues in a series of hearings this year. The Ward 6 Democrat said he's seeking a meeting with Mr. Quander and Chief Ellerbe within the next 48 hours on the recent incidents and that additional steps need to be taken.
"I believe this requires more than my attention, it requires the mayor's attention," he said.