Non-urgent 911 calls drain city resources

D.C. Fire and EMS has increasingly relied on mutual aid from Prince George's County as the city grows and the fire department attempts to keep up with equipment that should have been traded in years ago.

The city's ambulance shortage is grabbing headlines again after firefighters put an unconscious baby on a fire engine last week and headed to the hospital. The closest ambulance was seven miles away and there were no ambulances to send from Prince George's County.

According to a police report obtained by FOX 5, the child's father told police that he noticed his son choking and barely breathing when he decided to call 911. On Friday, city officials said a paramedic on Engine 30 made it to the baby's home within four minutes and began advanced life support.

The critical call for help would likely have been categorized by 911 call takers as one of the most serious. It would have risen to the level of a Delta or an Echo call, where advanced life support is needed.

According to figures released by the city, D.C. Fire and EMS handled 36,114 Delta calls and 1,293 Echo calls since the beginning of the year. However, it's the least serious calls that are taxing the system.

Alpha calls, where EMS care is not considered urgent, totaled 25,677 since the first of the year. The next serious category, Bravo, totaled nearly 30,000. As the calls rise, D.C. Fire and EMS struggles to keep up.

"All over the country, in urban communities, this has been an issue. The use of 911, the abuse in some respects of the 911 system that is really draining resources on the community, and so the education component is important," said D.C. City Administrator Rashad Young.

Officials say residents need to know that ambulances should be sent for real emergencies, not for things such as stubbed toes and people with the sniffles.

"Our population is growing by nearly 800 persons a month. We have a surge of people obviously that are coming into this community each and every day for work reasons and tourists and to visit," said Young. "And so we are experiencing and seeing a phenomenal growth and trend in EMS calls, and so we rely on mutual aid as do many jurisdictions and most jurisdictions do in the country."

Over the weekend, that trend continued. A spokesman for Prince George's County Fire and EMS said the District asked for help seven different times since Saturday morning.

While FOX 5 has reported on the ambulance shortage for several years, what's new is the fact that the District could not live up to a promise to put 10 additional ambulances on the street Monday through Friday during what's called the "power shift." The plan was to have 49 ambulances working the streets in the peak hours, but staffing shortages and old equipment that kept breaking down got in the way.