The D.C. Council has approved a plan to outsource lower-priority Fire & EMS transports to a third-party ambulance service.
The council voted unanimously Tuesday on the plan.
Under its present system, the D.C. Fire & EMS (FEMS) system is under significant strain as early as 9 a.m. daily, and is struggling to meet all calls for ambulances, Chief Gregory Dean said at a D.C. Council meeting last week.
The department has come under criticism in recent years for delays in response times and other problems.
Under the new plan, FEMS crews will still be the first responders on all 911 calls, but private ambulances would transport low-priority patients.
Dean said Tuesday he hopes to have private ambulance on the streets within four to six weeks, much sooner than he'd anticipated.
The plan would continue for a one-year test period. When that year is up, officials will review how the plan is working.
However, council members said they don't want to privatize the service indefinitely.
"We need to make sure that we have good response time, as well as be training our workers so that we have a world-class EMS system," said Council member Elissa Silverman. "We are falling very short."
Dean said he was grateful for the Council's support, but remained noncommittal on whether this would be a short- or long-term fix. However, he did say he wants the new ambulances in service sooner rather than later.
"We're thinking in the next four to six weeks, based on us being able to talk to the major companies, and see what they can and cannot do," Dean said. "It may be longer, but our hope is that we can do it immediately."
D.C. FEMS will start taking bids from companies soon. There are no details on what the plan is expected to cost.
Officials also added a few amendments to their initial proposal, including requiring quarterly reports from both FEMS and the private company, detailing how many runs were made, how long the calls lasted, and where patients were picked up and dropped off.
They also removed a provision that would have protected third-party ambulance companies from any civil litigation against them.
Under the new plan, FEMS will assess patients to determine when to request a third-party transport, but would still transport those with critical injuries or illnesses, such as cardiac arrest, stroke or major trauma. Third-party ambulances will take patients with concerns such as cold symptoms, twisted ankles or minor cuts.
Right now, nearly 70 percent of calls are classified as "basic life support," or non-life-threatening cases, according to a report prepared by Dean. Those ambulances have an EMT on board but no paramedic. Another 23 percent of calls are for the more serious "advanced life support," according to the report. More than 10 percent of calls don't require transport.
There's been a notable spike in calls to FEMS in recent years, with the department getting more than 500 calls a day, according to Dean's report. The increase has resulted in delays; Dean said the average ambulance response time has been as long as 17 minutes.
At last week's council meeting, Mayor Muriel Bowser said she's concerned about the city being sued over the delays.