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EXCLUSIVE: County Has ‘Critical’ Shortages of Ambulances Daily

by ARLnow.com October 5, 2010 at 10:33 am 3,475 26 Comments

Nearly every day, the number of Arlington County ambulances ready to respond to calls reaches zero, prompting dispatchers to broadcast a warning to supervisors while they scramble to find medics that can be put back into service.

While there are often other options available in the event a call comes in while all ,paramedic units are busy, Arlington Fire Chief James Schwartz says it’s a problem the department is aware of and trying to address.

“EMS is one of my highest priorities,” Schwartz said. “Almost every day we run out of available medic units.”

Medical calls make up about 60 percent of the fire department’s call volume, according to Schwartz. At any given time, about seven paramedic units are on duty in the county. Of those, two or three are usually out at a hospital, delivering patients or restocking their supplies.

When the number of paramedic units reaches the ‘critical’ level — one or none — the first order of business is usually to see if any units out at the hospital can be put into service. Another option is to take advantage of the county’s mutual aid agreement with the Alexandria, Fairfax County and Reagan National Airport fire departments.

It’s a common, daily occurrence for Fairfax medics to respond to calls in the western part of the county, or for airport ambulance crews to respond to calls in the Crystal City area. Every day, Arlington fire and medic units will also respond to calls outside the county.

In the event that a paramedic crew is temporarily unavailable, a fire engine can be sent ahead. Since the county’s fire trucks are often staffed with trained paramedics and equipped with advanced life support gear, sending the engine first means there is no delay in a patient’s on-scene medical treatment. But an ambulance is still needed to take the patient to the hospital.

In a real pinch, a “surge unit” in the Clarendon/Courthouse area can be put into action by moving a fire crew to an unstaffed ambulance.

Schwartz said he’s unaware of any instances in which medics were delayed and a patient was harmed as a result.

The paramedic situation was discussed during this year’s budget, Schwartz said, adding that county policymakers are aware of the problem and often ask about it. He suggested that the department will seek funding for another medic unit during the next round of budget talks.

“I would expect that it would be a topic of this year’s process,” he said.

  • John Goilios

    Ironic that you are showing an Alexandria medic unit.

  • John Goilios

    Aside from Fire Station 8, all stations that can accommodate a medic unit have them. Station 3 (Cherrydale) and Station 7 (Fairlington) are single-bay stations that can’t accommodate them. Once the new Station 3 opens, they should open a medic unit there. Far North Arlington response times can’t be good.

  • Ray

    Does anyone know when the new Cherrydale station is supposed to be ready? Construction seemed to be going great guns for a while but seems to have slowed (but maybe they are just busy doing work that is not clearly visible from the street).

  • jose walter tejada

    Maybe we can hire the guys over at pershing and glebe to man some vehicles as a stop gap

  • el fat kid
  • John Goilios

    Here the lead is buried in the bottom of the story: “South Fulton Mayor David Crocker didn’t exude compassion when interviewed for the same report, comparing the service to an insurance policy. “Anybody that’s not in the city of South Fulton, it’s a service we offer, either they accept it or they don’t.”

    A family in Tennessee didn’t accept. They lost their home over a $75 fee.”

    They live in an unincorporated area where you need to pay for services, such as fire protection. No different than paying for trash collection.

    • el fat kid

      i guess they’re the same in that if you don’t pay for either you end up with a huge pile of trash, but… no. that’s an incredibly narrow minded view of the world.

      regardless of fees it’s insane and inhuman for a bunch of fire fighters to stand around and watch a house burn down.

      • Mark

        My guess is there is a lot more to the story than is being reported. The initial story I saw was that he “refused” to pay the fee. He has also admitted that he went cheap on his home insurance and not everything would be covered. Why wouldn’t you just pay the fee?

    • BoredHouseWife

      Having trash pile, as disgusting as that may be is completely different than letting a house burn down. They should have put out the fire and billed him for the costs.

  • BrownFlipFlops

    Serious question – not a straw man. Does Arlington use volunteer paramedics to plug the gaps? If so, how long is the training period? Is it realistic for someone with a full time job to aspire to certification? Is it doable by someone who doesn’t have, say, and Army medic background?

  • ACFD Vol

    Arlington does have volunteers that run a BLS ambulance, that if need during the week, can be put into service. Typically it runs on the weekends. However, volunteers in Arlington are only allowed to perform at the EMT-B level.

    To obtain an EMT-B cert as a volunteer, you have to go through the course which is several months, depending on the program. Then to be able to operate the BLS ambulance, you have to go through the volunteer certification, which gets you street ready and that can take a while depending on how often you ride.

  • John Goilios

    It is hard enough for career firefighters to become proficient paramedics. I’m not sure volunteers are the way to go.

  • Let’s Be Free

    This article seems to say that nearly every day someone needs to actually manage the flow of units — that’s not a hardship. It’s not unreasonable, for example, to expect someone to rouse up emergency workers when they are on a lunch break, or are catching a midday workout at TJ Community Center. That’s the nature of the job (an unpredictable mix of downtime and interruptions). The single time our family required transport service we were served quickly and ably by a Fairfax County unit from the Falls Church area of the County. It seems to me that someone is trying to raise false alarms on this issue.

    • Box Alarm

      Lets Be Free, your comments are very offensive to me as a person who has given the majority of my adult life to serving Arlington County Citizens. I am quite certain I am not the only one. My co-workers have an enormous amount of pride in serving this community and they show it through frustration over this issue. We want to provide the absolute best service possible and due to the shortage of EMS transport units we feel we are not. Truth is, the unit that came to your house most likely was a Fairfax Unit because there were no Arlington Units available. You say you got prompt service which pleases me. However, the closer Arlington unit would have been there even quicker. This is important when brain damage occurs after 4 minutes when the brain is deprived of oxygen. Furthermore, I can assure you that during my time on a transport unit and even now on the fire apparatus I consistently don’t get my lunch… or a warm dinner… I don’t sleep at night either… The mid day workout you speak of is required of us. You try to run up several flights of stairs carrying close to 100 pounds of gear, and then be able to handle what you may find when you get there. The biggest killer of firefighters is heart disease so being in proper shape is crucial. I have also interrupted a two mile run to answer an emergency call. Let me remind you that the same people you speak of are willing to put themselves in grave danger for YOU. Take the example of our 343 Brothers who selflessly went into the World Trade Center Towers knowing full well that they would probably not make it out alive… Please know that sometimes there is more to what we see and you should do a little investigating prior to opening your mouth…

      • Box Alarm

        By the way… Just today the closest ambulance to Ballston Mall was coming from Duke Street and Quaker Lane in Alexandria… Problem? I think so…

  • Fire Guy

    I can assure you that in the ACFD, we do NOT have a “lunch break” or the luxury of “catching a midday workout” while allowing calls to go to a “critical” level. This issue is not someone trying to raise a false alarm. This issue is real, it happens nearly everyday, sometimes numerous times in a day. The ACFD needs more Medic units to accommodate an increasingly higher EMS call-volume. The numbers prove this fact. “Let’s Be Free” are you a firefighter that has knowledge of what you speak of?

    • el fat kid

      i agree with the idea that we need more medical response units. Between the elevated risk of mass-causality incidents and a population that often balloons during events in the area, the ratio of response units/citizens needs to be lower than most places.

      However, I do not agree with the sentiment that you have to be in the field to understand the problems or the issue at large. I get it, you’re rushing between calls and that’s a valuable insight, but that doesn’t mean you get the full public policy picture of the situation. Proclaiming yourself to be the only one who understands a situation generally indicates you don’t understand it all. Thank you for your service, hard work and insight, but do not discount someone’s opinion (even the oft-annoying LBF) just b/c you’re involved on a street level.

      • Fire Guy

        I only discount someones opinion when they are wrong about it. I make no proclamations other than the facts that I know. His sentiments do not revolve around public policy, they revolve around how he thinks I do my job. Which were incorrect. Public policy is for the politicians and what tax dollars can be utilized to provide for more medic units. That’s not my level of expertise, that’s why I didn’t comment on public policy. I asked if he was a firefighter to give him the benefit of the doubt to what he was proclaiming.

  • Skeptical

    I have been listening to Arlington politics long enough to remember that people were discussing the need for one additional medic unit to keep pace with growth *twelve years ago* at least, and that our current fire chief’s predecessor practically got the bum’s rush from the Board when he tried to press the issue.

    I am sure there are communities that are in more precarious shape, but if this remains a routine problem a dozen years later, while we fund all kinds of decorative or quixotic undertakings, I question that babble about Arlington being a “world class community” at the bottom of County press releases. What we are is a community that is both aging and increasing in size, and will always be at risk for 9/11 type occurrences. A push to at least train a good cadre of auxiliaries seems in order.

  • Bringmetheyuppies

    Cross train all firefighters to be emts. Simple solution but emt is not as glamorous as emt therefore make it mandatory. Want the firefighter gig, do the emt training.

    • Fireman

      All Alington County Firefighters are already EMTs and many of them are Paramedics. It’s not the people that are the problem. We just don’t have the funding for the additional transport units.

  • SouthernMDvolley

    The paramedics I saw last Thursday on Fairfax Drive obviously don’t do their physical exercise and I seriously doubt that they miss any meals! Box alarm, we all know that while firefighters do walk up stairs, the paramedics usually take the elevator.

    • John Goilios

      In Arlington, paramedics are fighters. So you keep ticking in MD and let ACFD do their job here.

  • katydid

    This is a problem that has existed for years. I know it goes as far back as when Ellen Bozman was on the Board. Arlington’s medic units back then were responding to almost double the national average and double the responses of Fairfax County medic units. Lunch breaks? You’ve got to be kidding!! I once stopp by one station and found one medic had been working 36 hours straight without a break. Would you want a medic to respond to aid you in an emergency when he was this exhausted? The only way this problem will ever be addressed adequately is for a Board member to need a medic unit and one not be available.


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