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DC ambulance breaks down while transporting shooting victim to hospital

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WASHINGTON -

The D.C. fire department is trying to determine why one of its newer diesel ambulances broke down as crews were transporting a patient in cardiac arrest.

It happened on I-295 Wednesday afternoon as Ambulance 19 was taking a shooting victim to the hospital. Then it took several minutes for a second ambulance to arrive.

The driver of Ambulance 19 is telling investigators the indicator lights on the emission control system suddenly and unexpectedly jumped from a warning to shut down in a matter of seconds, and as the engine died, she was able to pull the rig to the side of the road.

The question now is why? And can these newer rigs be trusted to be there in an emergency?

When the D.C. fire department began buying these diesel engine ambulances a few years ago, officials knew they would have to manage them with a new emission control system that would automatically shut the engine down if it wasn't allowed to what's called "regenerate.”

It was a mandate from the Environmental Protection Agency.

And until recently, the fire department said it had been able to handle the requirements without any significant incidents.

One of those incidents involved the same ambulance that broke down Wednesday.

"On May 22nd or 23rd, it was here in the shop,” said Deputy Chief John Donnelly of D.C. Fire and EMS. “It had a problem with the regeneration system. That problem was a lot different. The end result is the same - the engine gave a warning light. But it was different in some ways and we sent it to the dealer and got it back. It was repaired and it was running fine when we put it back in service.”

Donnelly says the drivers of the rigs and the people who manage them have to stay on top of the warning lights to make sure they don't ever approach the shut down level.

"We don't want to have any incidents like this, but we’ve shown we can manage it,” he said. “It’s tough. It takes a lot of coordination and effort and there are a number of people that work on it. The drivers have a role, the dispatchers have a role, the battalion chiefs and EMS supervisors have a role and everybody has been doing their job in managing this. I'm confident we can.”

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Although Donnelly says he is only aware of one recent problem with Ambulance 19's emissions system, the union says they have a record of at least three.

"To my understanding, this particular problem has been reported three times prior since last August and not addressed properly with that particular unit,” said Union President Ed Smith.

Smith says minutes count with patient care, and engine shutdowns due to emission control are unacceptable.

"It's going back to the manufacturer,” said Smith. “It should still be under warranty and let them get to the bottom of it.”

But in the future, the fire department may not have to deal with the issue.

In May of last year, after many complaints from other fire departments, the EPA issued a directive waiving the diesel emissions rules for fire engines and ambulances.

Donnelly was unaware of the directive and said he would look into it.

What is unclear is if the emissions controls can be disconnected or the fire department would have to buy new units without them.

When Ambulance 19 broke down, it was transporting 34-year-old Nathaniel McRae, who had just been in a shootout with D.C. police.

A medic continued to administer CPR while the crew waited for a second ambulance but McRae was pronounced dead at Howard University Hospital.

What is unclear is how long the crew waited for the second ambulance. But a spokesman for the fire department, Lon Walls, said "the delay did not affect care in any way.”

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