Failure to change is the root of DCFEMS problems

With no long-term plan and a lack of vision, the department has barely evolved since the 1970’s

The DCFEMS chief can’t seem to catch a break. Every attempt Chief Ken Ellerbe has made to revamp the department’s operation to better respond to the community’s needs has been met with resistance — and at times, total disdain.

His latest proposal to shut down a neighborhood fire station to increase on-duty medics during peak call times is no exception.

Yet, given a rancorous relation with labor and an ever-increasing distrustful city council, it’s not very likely that such a Band-Aid gesture would even make much of a difference for the department. 

It continues to suffer from poor performance and poor public perception. 

Kicking cans down the road

On one hand I can’t lay all of the blame on the current chief. He inherited decades of a poorly managed public safety organization, with each prior chief kicking a bunch of proverbial cans down the road.

It points to the greater issue of not having a plan.

The department’s own civil committee released a report in 2013 that said as much. It determined there was no coherent, logical approach to staffing an appropriate level of EMS resources by the department. It seemed leadership at the time didn’t even know how many ambulances could be available on any given day.

But even this report doesn’t capture the full extent of the issue.

Like many large urban EMS departments, DCFEMS has not evolved since the 1970s.  Revised construction codes and enforcement has led to fewer fires over the past 40 years, but staffing levels have not dropped in response.

At the same time, the demand for EMS has risen due to changing demographics, an aging population and poorly distributed health care availability. Add in the mind-numbing intricacies of reimbursement and the medical-legal environment and you have a situation that would be difficult for any department to adapt to.

It’s about mindset

But many fire departments have done just that, managing to incorporate the evolving needs of their communities, while maintaining operational effectiveness for existing ones.

What they have in common is a long-term strategic mindset that looks at needs  not just in one year, but three, five or 10 years down the road. They consider the financial, operational and cultural barriers to overcome, as well as who needs to be involved in the planning.

In many ways DCFEMS is the case study for how a department fails in the face of change. Without leadership and vision from all levels of the organization, it’s not likely things will improve anytime soon.

About the author

Art Hsieh, MA, NRP teaches in Northern California at the Public Safety Training Center, Santa Rosa Junior College in the Emergency Care Program. An EMS provider since 1982, Art has served as a line medic, supervisor and chief officer in the private, third service and fire-based EMS. He has directed both primary and EMS continuing education programs. Art is a textbook writer, author of "EMT Exam for Dummies," has presented at conferences nationwide and continues to provide direct patient care regularly. Art is a member of the EMS1 Editorial Advisory Board. Contact Art at and connect with him on Facebook or Twitter.

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