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Opinion: DC Fire-EMS is 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


By Art Hsieh

The never-ending story of D.C. Fire-EMS, a department that supposedly protects the health and welfare of our nation’s capital residents 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 D.C.'s naive political leadership an opportunity to glimpse at what most EMS and fire 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 a reasonable amount of time.

House on fire? Sure, D.C. fire can handle that. Although there are way fewer fires 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 rare fires; how could they not manage a house 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 10 years. How many of these individuals could be saved if even an average medical response was mounted?

Culture of incompetence
What about heart attacks, strokes, hemorrhages, complicated childbirths, traumatic brain injuries or 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.

It appears that the DCFEMS leaders and personnel must not live within the District, or have family or friends who reside there. Otherwise I have to believe that there would be some tinge of guilt or remorse that they collect a paycheck for working in a system that doesn’t serve a 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, D.C.

It also seems pretty clear that this is the picture of EMS that our senators, representatives and their staffs 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?

About the author
EMS1 Editorial Advisor Art Hsieh, MA, NREMT-P currently teaches at the Public Safety Training Center, Santa Rosa Junior College in the Emergency Care Program. In the profession since 1982, Art has worked as a line medic and chief officer in the private, third service and fire-based EMS. He has directed both primary and EMS continuing education programs. A Past President of the National Association of EMS Educators, former Chief Executive Officer of the San Francisco Paramedic Association, and a scholarship recipient of the American Society of Association Executives, Art is a published textbook author, has presented at conferences nationwide, and continues to provide patient care at a rural hospital-based ALS system. Contact Art at