Over 100 DC firefighters call out sick on New Year's Eve - FOX 13 News

Over 100 DC firefighters call out sick on New Year's Eve

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The D.C. Fire Department found itself in a crisis situation New Year's Eve when more than a 100 firefighters called in sick. At least 11 ambulances went unstaffed and supervisors were forced to ask for help from Prince George's County.

One man died waiting for an ambulance and a stabbing victim was transported to the hospital in a fire truck.

The Firefighter's union denies it was behind a coordinated sick out and says the trouble New Year's Eve could have been avoided if the department had staffed up as it did in recent years.

Ed Smith, the head of the union, says the department is choosing cost cutting over public safety.

That's a claim the chief denies.

If you called for an ambulance in the District of Columbia New Year's Eve you were likely left waiting for quite some time.

Multiple sources with internal department documents to back it up say ambulance crews were in constant motion crisscrossing the city trying to keep up with the demand.

On Lang Place Northeast, Fire Engine 30 transported a stabbing victim to the hospital because an ambulance wasn't available. It's highly unusual for a patient to be transported on a fire truck.

At a home on 44th Place Southeast it took 40 minutes for an ambulance to arrive from Prince George's County for a man in cardiac arrest.

A relative says the man later died.

Chief Kenneth Ellerbe declined to point any fingers over the large number of firefighters calling out sick but admitted it was highly unusual.

"Today we have 26 people out sick" said Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe, "but it could be members waited because they have an option to use sick leave three times a year without going to the clinic, it's called our minor illness program, New Year's Eve, it could be our members wanted to be off or they were sick."

Chief Ellerbe described the man power shortage as a challenge rather than a crisis and says he attempted to find replacements.

He asked the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety to waive the cap on overtime that prevents some firefighters from working extra hours.

"My understanding is he talked to the mayor and (City Council Chairman) Phil Mendelson" said Chief Ellerbe, "and there was an agreement that if we relaxed the cap we would do it for just this instance but as it turned out only two members took advantage of it so it doesn't make sense for us to talk about those kind of things as opposed to just working together to make sure these things don't happen again."

Chief Ellerbe says when the department went looking for extra help New Year's Eve 48 out of 50 fire fighters turned the department down.

It's no secret the firefighters union and the Fire Chief have been at odds.

It was just about a year ago a room full of firefighters turned their backs on the Chief and walked out of a state of the department speech he had just given.

In 2010 the District put a law into place limiting the number of overtime hours a firefighter can work.

A law the firefighters union would like to see abolished.

The union says firefighters who want to work are prevented from doing so because of the law.

FOX 5 has obtained an internal document showing five medic units and eight ambulances needed for staffing News Year's Eve for a total of 13.

In response to reports of a large number of the District's firefighters taking sick leave on New Year's Eve and leaving the District's fire and emergency services short-staffed, Councilmember Tommy Wells, Chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety issued the following statement:

"I was very disturbed to learn of the low levels of staffing of firefighters on New Year's Eve. This put the safety of District residents in jeopardy. Today, I have spoken with Mayor Gray, FEMS Chief Ellerbe and Ed Smith, President of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 36. I told each of them that this is an issue that must be resolved and never repeated. Whatever personnel and management issues may exist, the safety of the residents of the District of Columbia are non-negotiable."

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