‘People Are Dying Needlessly': DC Assistant Fire Chief Resigns

Washington's EMS medical director and assistant fire chief has submitted her resignation in a fiery letter that cites "emergency" problems within the department that put citizens' lives in danger.

Dr. Jullette M. Saussy told News4 she will resign after just seven months on the job.

She said in a four-page letter to Mayor Muriel Bowser that a "highly toxic" culture and "lack of accountability" within the D.C. EMS system delays crews' responses to life-or-death situations.

"People are dying needlessly because we are moving too slow," Saussy wrote in the letter dated Jan. 29. "Every time we send scarce resources to low-level calls, we deplete our resources and prolong response times to true emergencies."

Saussy cited a stabbing victim, Robert Wiggins, who died after an ambulance took nearly 20 minutes to reach him on Jan. 27.

"He suffered a potentially survivable injury, but it took more than 18 minutes for a transport ambulance to reach the 35-year-old man on 37th Street SE," the letter said. "We failed that young man."

"Tragically, people die needlessly quite frequently and the majority of them don't make the news," the letter continued.

D.C. Fire and EMS Chief Gregory Dean confirmed the ambulance took 18 minutes to reach Wiggins, who died four days after being attacked in an apartment. 

"That's the same problem we've been having because we don't have enough resources, because they get stuck at the hospital," Dean said Wednesday. "It's why we've said we're going to use a third-party provider to offset that, so we keep some unit availability." 

As previously announced, D.C. will deploy private ambulances to help reduce some lapses in service.

In an interview with News4, Saussy, who previously ran the ambulance service in New Orleans, compared Wiggins' death to the deaths of David Rosenbaum in 2006 and Medric Cecil Mills in 2014. Each man's death was the subject of an extensive investigation into improper care by first responders. Each time, city officials promised change. 

"Just like Mr. Mills and any other names we could talk about, Mr. Rosenbaum, they deserve to know that their lives are not lost in vain," Saussy said. 

She objected to being asked to vouch for the skills of more than 700 medics to the D.C. Department of Health and the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians. She wrote that she could not ethically attest to the workers' skills when she had not been involved in their training or education, and had not met most of the workers. Her attempts to access medics had been blocked, she wrote.

"Not only can I not verify competency, there is no valid indication that they have received any form of real training or continuing education," she wrote.

Dean thanked Saussy for her service.

"We are working diligently to find an interim medical director," he wrote in a letter to fire and EMS crews. "I want to assure you that all of our plans for EMS reform will continue uninterrupted."

Bowser said Wednesday that her administration is working on reforms within the fire and EMS department.

"The problems at Fire and EMS have been long documented, in terms of culture," she said. "Can you turn around a culture in six months? Probably not. But we have put in place a commitment to our employees that says you're going to have the equipment that you need and you're going to have the training that we need. We think that turns around culture."

In the past year, the Bowser administration has held the first entry-level exam in eight years to hire new workers to the department, put a process in place to use third-party EMS providers to support FEMS and ended a 14-year lawsuit between D.C. and the largest FEMS union, spokesman Michael Czin said.

Ed Smith, the head of the union that represents rank-and-file EMS workers, said the union offered a number of alternatives to Saussy's plan for a comprehensive assessment of training and procedures.

Saussy's last day on the job will be Friday.

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