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DC Fire and EMS: The shame of EMS

The medical director’s resignation is the latest failure for a department entrusted with the care of the nation’s capital citizens and visitors

Since publication some of the opinions expressed in this article have been modified. Learn more about DCFEMS key performance indicators and view a widget which displays daily and 30-day trailing fire incidents and EMS incidents on the DCFEMS website.

The never-ending story of DC Fire and EMS, a department that supposedly protects the health and welfare of our nation’s capital citizens and visitors, has yet again closed another chapter filled with failed policies, indifferent leadership and lousy public safety.

With the resignation of Dr. Jullette Saussy, another well-intentioned physician trying to make a difference, DCFEMS once again proves that organizations will always rise — or sink — to the level of incompetency that pervades the system.

At least this time a small snippet of the curtain was lifted away for a moment, allowing Washington DC’s naive political leadership an opportunity to glimpse at what most of us EMS industry insiders have known for decades — don’t get sick in the District and expect any level of competent care to arrive at your door in some reasonable amount of time.

House on fire? Sure, DC fire can handle that. Though fires likely happen much less frequently than EMS calls, they spend an enormous amount of money on fire suppression. And there is such an overload of staffing to take care of those infrequent fires; how could they not manage a structure fire?

But to handle the hundreds of daily medical calls, for some reason that doesn’t really matter to DCFEMS leaders.

I suspect that more people die within the district each week from a sudden cardiac arrest than from the fires that have raged in the district over the past ten years. How many of these individuals could be saved if even an average medical response was mounted?

What about heart attacks? Strokes? Hemorrhage? Complicated childbirth? Traumatic brain injury? Asthma attacks?

Each of these patient subsets have a time interval where prompt, accurate care can make a difference in how someone survives — and thrives — after the event.

I wonder if DCFEMS leaders live within the District, or have family or friends who reside there. And do they have some tinge of guilt or remorse that they collect a paycheck working in a system that doesn’t seems to serve its EMS purpose.

Over the decades I’ve seen incident after incident of incompetency reported about DCFEMS. I used to believe that some of our smartest, wisest and most committed citizens work in the District, for the greater good of the country. Clearly that’s not the case within DCFEMS nor in the leadership of Washington DC.

It also seems pretty clear that this is the picture of EMS that our U.S. senators and representatives, and their staff, working in the Capital see when they walk down the boulevards of the capital city. How much of that viewpoint colors and distorts the EMS discussion on the national level?

DCFEMS, the shame of EMS.

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.