Kenneth Ellerbe is here to stay, Gray says

August 27, 2013

D.c. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe (left) and Mayor Vincent C. Gray inspect firefighter trainees as they enter a Tuesday news conference. (Mike DeBonis/The Washington Post)

Updated at 4 p.m. with comment from spokesman Keith St. Clair

The Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department has “turned the corner,” Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe declared to reporters Tuesday morning, as he and Mayor Vincent C. Gray sought to move past months of controversy that have cast doubts on the department’s readiness.

Gray and Ellerbe stood at the Engine 2 firehouse downtown behind two new ambulances, the first to be delivered in an order of 30, and in front of 60 future firefighters, who are now undergoing training at the city fire academy. The new equipment and hires — which are both expected to be on the street by year’s end — show that the department is on the right track, they said.

“We’re no longer at a tipping point,” Ellerbe said. “We’re now in a position to turn the corner.”

Gray also used the news conference to put to rest rumblings that he might abandon Ellerbe, who has been deeply criticized by the firefighters union and some D.C. Council members, saying the chief had no reason to fear for his job. “I am really pleased with the progress he has made,” Gray said. “The department is being managed well.”

Ellerbe, too, said he had no plans to leave: “I would like to stay around and see the hard work we’ve put in come to fruition.” Among the plans he would pursue, he said, is again seeking D.C. Council approval for a plan to change ambulance deployments to put more units on the street during peak service times.

The council rejected the plan in July, saying the department did not have enough staff or ambulances to provide a basic level of emergency service during off-peak hours under the plan. Ellerbe said Tuesday that the new ambulances and new hires would put the department in better stead for redeployment.

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who as chairman of the Public Safety and Judiciary Committee led the opposition to the redeployment proposal, said Tuesday that the council’s action “clearly had the desired effect.”

“We said you need to replace the broken ambulances and hire new staff,” he said. If the department can show it can handle adding additional ambulance units, “then I don’t know why [the council] would not support this shift if it shows they are adding services and not taking services away.”

Keith St. Clair, a city spokesman, said the processes leading to the new hires and new equipment had both been initiated well before the council took up the ambulance redeployment plan.

Wells said he is happy to see the new hires and equipment but is otherwise not convinced the department’s problems have been wholly solved. “They assured me there was no corner that needed to be turned,” he said. “It’s clear the administration understands now the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department did have a problem.”

For one thing, it doesn’t appear that the relationship between department management and the firefighters union will be improving in the near future.

Local 36 President Ed Smith attended the more-than-hour-long news conference and afterward called it a “dog and pony show.” The new hires and new ambulances are “a good thing,” he said, but “this should have been what we’ve been doing the whole time.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis · August 27, 2013