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Upper NW gets private rescue option

(Published July 2, 2001)


Staff Writer

Residents of upper Northwest Washington will have the option of calling a private rescue squad for ambulance service under a new agreement that some critics are assailing as a "luxury" for the city’s more affluent neighborhoods.

While Councilwoman Kathleen Patterson, who represents most of the area included in the agreement, characterizes the arrangement as the formalization of "a historical situation," some of her D.C. City Council colleagues are questioning why their constituents’ greater need for emergency health services are not being met first.

"We need the same thing on our side of town because there is a longer travel time [to a hospital]...and we have a large youth population, which means a lot of child accidents," said Councilwoman Sandra Allen, whose Ward 8 constituents at the city’s southernmost tip have only one nearby hospital since the closure of D.C. General Hospital.

An aide to Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose, whose Ward 6 constituents lost their only hospital when D.C. General closed June 24, said the timing of the city’s new agreement with the volunteer Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad perpetuates the image that "most people in upper Northwest are valued more and have more perks" than other D.C. residents.

The agreement between the suburban Maryland squad, which is not part of the Montgomery County government, and the D.C. fire department was signed May 1 – the same day the privatization contract that eventually closed the city’s only public hospital went into effect.

"We do wish we had the same luxury," said Ambrose aide Eric Rodgers. "It would be nice to have these partnerships with towns that could assist. D.C. General [closing] affects the whole city, but Wards 7 and 8 the most."

Four D.C. fire stations serve upper Northwest, but city officials said only two ambulances currently are assigned to those stations. The stations are located at 4300 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 4811 MacArthur Blvd. NW, 3522 Connecticut Ave. NW and 4930 Connecticut Ave. NW.

Patterson said "there has been a constant pushing" by her Ward 3 constituents for the city to sign a formal agreement that permits the suburban rescue squad more latitude to directly assist upper Northwest D.C. residents. The agreement costs the city nothing, because residents traditionally donate money to the Bethesda-Chevy Chase squad in return for its services.

Under the new agreement, D.C. residents of a specified service area may call the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad instead of "911" to summon an ambulance, but the suburban squad would be required to immediately contact the D.C. department and work in conjunction with D.C. personnel while answering the call. The suburban squad will be required to file quarterly reports with the D.C. government, detailing the services it has provided within the city limits.

Residents within the following boundaries may be served by the suburban squad, under the new agreement: 5000 block of MacArthur Boulevard NW, 2600 block of Foxhall Road NW, 2300 block of 34th Street NW, 2800 block of New Mexico Avenue NW, 2900 block of Wisconsin Avenue NW, 2900 block of 34th Street NW, 3100 block of Connecticut Avenue NW and Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park northerly to the Montgomery County, Md., border.

Denise Reed, communications director for the D.C. Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services, cited informal help that D.C. receives when needed from Prince George’s County, Md., firefighters as comparable to the Bethesda-Chevy Chase arrangement.

"This is not an unusual situation," she said.

But what is unusual about the arrangement is that residents of the covered neighborhoods in Wards 3 and 4 will be able to bypass calling "911" to receive taxpayer-financed emergency medical service from the city. No other D.C. residents have such an option.

"Under the agreement, patients have the option of where they want to go," said Peter Morris, assistant chief at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad.

Morris said most of the more than 1,000 D.C. patients served per year by his squad "go to GW and Sibley hospitals, but we do not take patients to Maryland hospitals. Any patient involved in a police investigation, we make sure to transfer them to D.C. hospitals for the D.C. police department," he added.

Ambulance response time in the District has long been criticized as too slow but has come under increased scrutiny recently due to the privatization of the city’s health-care services for the poor and uninsured. Under the privatization contract with Greater Southeast Community Hospital, which was implemented over the city council’s objections by Mayor Anthony A. Williams and the presidentially appointed financial control board, the city lost a centrally located trauma center for treatment of life-threatening injuries and illnesses when D.C. General was downsized from a full-service hospital to a "health campus."

City officials have pledged to keep two city ambulances idling outside D.C. General’s 24-hour emergency room to immediately transport across town to another hospital anyone who seeks care for serious ailments and injuries that can no longer be treated at D.C. General.

The Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad has been providing some degree of support to upper Northwest D.C. residents since the volunteer squad began in 1938 out of the D.C. home of Don Dunnington at 38th Street and Military Road, officials said. Last year the suburban rescue squad responded to more than 10,000 calls in Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Glen Echo, Cabin John and the District of which over 1,200 were calls for service to upper Northwest.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator