‘911 Abuse,' Deteriorating Fleet Contributing to Shortage of Available Ambulances: Officials

The death of a 5-month-old boy Thursday afternoon in D.C. brought attention to a growing problem in the region. Officials say “911 abuse” contributes to a shortage of available ambulances.

The boy was taken part of the way to the hospital by fire truck because the closest ambulance was seven miles away. (There’s no indication that the transportation of the boy was a factor in his death.)

The head of the D.C. firefighters union and city officials say 911 abuse -- people calling for an ambulance when they don’t really need one -- is getting out of hand. People call 911 for things as simple as stubbed toes, headaches or toothaches, said Ed Smith, of the union.

“At the end of the day if they want to go to the hospital, we have to provide that service to them,” he said.

The number of low-priority, non-life-threatening calls so far this year is more than 56,000, according to data from Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office. That’s compared to about 1,300 calls for the most critical emergencies, like heart attacks.

City officials have said the number of 911 calls for medical emergencies is at an all-time high, which is a burden on the fire department. Those calls also are becoming a burden for surrounding jurisdictions. When D.C. finds itself shorthanded, the city asks neighboring jurisdictions to send help.

But 911 abuse is not the only problem. D.C. still isn’t fully deploying its ambulances. Six months ago, the mayor promised 49 ambulances on duty during the power shifts, but on Thursday and Friday there were about 10 fewer ambulances in service.

“We're spending millions of dollars to buy and repair those rigs as quickly as possible so we can consistently be at 49 units,” City Administrator Rashad Young said.

Contact Us