DC Fire and EMS medical director resigns, calls department 'toxic'

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A man died of a stab wound that he could have survived if he hadn't waited 18 minutes for an ambulance, the outgoing medical director of the District of Columbia's fire department said in a scathing resignation letter that questioned Mayor Muriel Bowser's efforts to reform the long-troubled agency.

"People are dying needlessly because we are moving too slow," Dr. Jullette Saussy said in the letter, which she shared with The Associated Press on Tuesday.

The fire department in the nation's capital has a poor reputation for providing timely emergency medical care. The AP reported in 2013 that the department was trying to make do with less than half the paramedics employed by departments with similar call volumes.

The city has also struggled to dispatch calls in a timely and efficient manner. When the city's 911 call center got calls about smoke filling a Metro subway train in a downtown tunnel last January -- an incident that ultimately claimed the life of a passenger -- it took 5 minutes for the first firefighters to be dispatched to the scene. Also last year, a 1-year-old died after choking on a grape when the nearest ambulance wasn't sent to the scene.

The death of the 35-year-old man who was stabbed last month was just one of many that have not been scrutinized by the public, Saussy said in her letter, dated Jan. 29.

"Tragically, people die needlessly quite frequently, and the majority of them don't make the news," she said.

Saussy, who previously ran the ambulance service in New Orleans, submitted her resignation after less than seven months on the job, saying her efforts to reform the department had been stymied. She said the department's culture "is highly toxic to the delivery of any semblance of quality pre-hospital care."

Bowser, a Democrat, has acknowledged that the department needs major changes. As chief, she hired Gregory Dean, who spent 10 years as chief of Seattle's fire department, which is recognized as a national leader in emergency medical care.

Michael Czin, a spokesman for the mayor, said many of Saussy's claims were "highly inaccurate." Administration officials have repeatedly said they share Saussy's stated goal of getting paramedics to the highest-priority calls and improving patient outcomes.

"We're not turning a blind eye to it," Czin said.

The mayor pushed through a proposal to supplement the city's overworked ambulance fleet with private ambulances to handle low-priority calls. Saussy said that plan "is as unlikely to fix the situation as placing a Band-Aid on a gushing artery."

But administration officials say the private ambulances are just part of a multipronged approach to reforming the department, including better training for firefighters to handle medical emergencies.


Follow Ben Nuckols on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APBenNuckols.