Quality emergency response is priceless


As deliberation on the city budget enters its last month, officials’ decisions are becoming tougher and starker. Art enthusiasts have made cases to maintain funding for culturally enriching programs while environmentalists favor funding for sustainability. A dynamic city has dedicated citizens like these who are passionate about their own causes.

But City Council members have a chance to make the challenging decisions for which they were elected by prioritizing public safety the foundation of a functional city over important but less consequential budget items.

The Alexandria Fire Department currently lacks the funding necessary to operate in accordance with national standards. Fire crews require an extra firefighter on each engine to meet such safety standards and the elected officials, well aware of the void, seem to be moving toward solutions. However, a less publicized void facing the fire department has been their emergency medical response teams.

The lack of available ambulances and emergency medical technicians has resulted in an average response time of more than seven minutes since July 1, 2009. The national standard and the standard that the AFD strives for is six minutes, but that marker was only reached 62 percent of the time since last July, according to an internal memo from City Manager Jim Hartmann to Mayor Bill Euille and City Council members. Ideally, that six-minute threshold should be reached 90 percent of the time, the memo stated.

“In Alexandria, this percentage has plummeted downward to an unacceptable level for reaching patients in critical condition,” Hartmann wrote.

Of course it is unacceptable particularly for a city that supposedly has such a high quality of life. A human life lost because of an elongated response time is one that is unable to enjoy the supposed quality for which their taxes pay.

The fire department has requested funding for two new ambulances and five new medics to close the gap, and elected officials should jump through budgetary hoops to make that funding a reality. 

Long-term initiatives like those aimed at reducing childhood obesity and a healthier city in general should eventually decrease the need for emergency medics, but only marginally. There is no substitute for quality response to out-of-the-blue emergencies. All kinds of people are subject to car wrecks and freak accidents. Emergencies don’t discriminate. 

While the city’s fire department participates in regional partnerships with Arlington and Fairfax, Alexandria cannot depend so heavily on its neighbors moving forward. Last year, Arlington and Fairfax combined to respond to about 10 percent of Alexandria’s emergency calls (three to four calls a day), and Fairfax has discussed cutting back services to areas like Mount Vernon and Bailey’s Crossroads, which would increase demand on Alexandria’s units.

Elected officials and city staff are aware of the AFD’s needs and don’t seem to be taking them lightly. It’s not easy to search the crevices for funds with a $44 million budget deficit, but public safety needs to make the grade to maintain the quality of life that trickles down from a safe city.