State of the District speech could be flashpoint in firefighter conflict


The D.C. fire union hasn’t been shy about taking their concerns to elected officials. (IAFF Local 36)

The union representing city firefighters is alleging that a deputy fire chief sent down orders over the weekend that any FEMS member who attends Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s “state of the District” speech Tuesday and “exhibits any form of disrespect or insubordination” will be subject to “swift punitive action.”

That account comes in a letter sent Monday by union president Ed Smith to his members. The letter also says that Smith consulted with Ellerbe himself, who said the supposed no-walkout message was “taken out of context and was poorly conveyed” to firefighters.

Lon Walls, an FEMS spokesman, said “there was no directive” and explained a lieutenant who is also a union member “misconstrued” departmental discussions.

Walls said the department “respects their right to freedom of speech,” but declined to say that firefighters who wished to protest could do so without fear of discipline. “It would not be appreciated,” he said. “It would be frowned upon.”

Smith said he was disappointed Ellerbe wouldn’t be crystal-clear about what his orders are. “Something that volatile, you cannot do verbally,” he said. “You need to issue something in writing to help quell any rumors out there. It’s the reasonable thing to do.”

The protests have been sparked by several Ellerbe actions, including instituting a ban on wearing “DCFD” clothing while on duty and, even more controversially, proposing a change from 24-hour to 12-hour work shifts.

Any protest that might take place, Smith said, is “grassroots” and unsanctioned by the union.

”I just ask they be respectful and act professionally,” he said. “I wouldn’t like to see them do any kind of protest. Just show up, sit down and listen to what the mayor has to say.”

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.

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