When you need help, D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services is supposed to get there quickly.
According to medical experts, someone who isn’t breathing has less than six minutes before brain damage or death.
Less than two weeks ago, DCFEMS Chief Kenneth Ellerbe claimed his units respond to calls in 6.5 minutes or less 92 percent of the time.
“We do try to keep the numbers very short and very tight so we do reduce our response time,” Chief Ellerbe told the News4 I-Team.
For more than a year and a half, the I-Team fought a legal battle with DCFEMS for documents that would hopefully reveal the agency’s true response times.
We finally obtained data for all 911 calls for DCFEMS service from January 2012 until this past May.
More than a quarter million vehicles dispatched to the scene of an emergency.
At first, we found the data matches much of what the city claimed.
But then we discovered some important details that might change the way you look at how the city keeps track of its emergency response times. It definitely surprised Edward Smith, the president of the DC Firefighters Association Local 36.
As Smith explained, “You call 911 and a fire engine or an ambulance shows up on your door. That’s the time everybody wants to know.”
When you call 911, a “call taker” picks it up at the Office of Unified Communication, or OUC, and sends it to a “dispatcher,” who then tells the appropriate unit where to go. It’s then up to the fire department to get to where it’s going as quickly as possible.
But we discovered DCFEMS only counts the amount of time it takes from the moment a unit is dispatched to when it arrives at your door.
It does not include the minutes it takes for your 911 call to move through OUC.
"I'm calculating what we're responsible for,” Chief Ellerbe told us, “which is the time of dispatch to time of arrival on the scene."
According to the chief and his staff, no one in the city keeps track of the entire length of the response.
Meaning response times could be minutes longer than previously reported.
The union’s reaction? “Sad, sad,” Smith said. “Public deserves to know the truth, and in this age of government they tout words like ‘transparency’ and ‘being collaborative,’ and we don't see it."
The News4 I-Team also noticed there were some very short response times, mere seconds, and incredibly long times, like six, seven and eight hours, in the data.
DCFEMS said these are obviously not right, claiming its “system didn't recognize a unit had arrived on a scene” or “a member didn't press the arrival button.”
Chief Ellerbe explained, "We don't throw out so many outliers though that we skew the numbers, but some things are just so short or extremely long that they would not fall anywhere in the calculation."
So we asked, What do you count?
The answer? Any call between one minute and 30 minutes.
And that shocked the union. “It's disingenuine [sic],” Smith told us. “I would call it cooking the books."
Smith said no one ever told the union the city threw out calls - roughly 8,000 in our data.
"From the documents I've seen from the department, I've never seen that explained in their datasets,” Smith said. “So why all of a sudden that comes out now?"
Smith said it is very rare for a call to take just one minute.
That's how long, he said, it takes a crew just to get into a vehicle - or what's called the "chute time."
He said the only way a call could take one minute is if someone walked into a fire house with an injury or a vehicle happened to be passing the scene on the way to something else.
As for calls taking more than 30 minutes, Smith said, “In rare instances, if you're going from one end of town to the other with lights and sirens in rush hour traffic, absolutely it’s going to happen."
But Chief Ellerbe stands by the data.
"We don't skew the numbers that badly,” he told us. “Those are very few and far between and I will say that our employees have responded to the response time, chute time challenge admirably. They do get out the door and they do get to the scene pretty quickly."