Responding to fire department criticism, Vincent Gray stands by his men


Paul Quander, seen in a 2008 photo, said a call for his resignation is rooted in politics, not performance. (Ray Lustig/The Washington Post)

Updated 4:40 p.m. to reflect that Quander reacted to the call for his own resignation, not Ellerbe’s

A day after a D.C. Council member and mayoral hopeful called for the dismissal of two of his top public safety deputies, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) shrugged off the suggestion as a “ridiculous political trick.”

Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee, on Tuesday called for the resignations of Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe and Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul A. Quander Jr., saying they had shown no resolve to fix problems within the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.

But Gray, speaking at a news conference to announce funding for jobs-related programs in Ward 8, brushed off the suggestion as campaign season pandering. “I will be glad when April 1 comes and goes, because then people will get back to some sanity with how they behave,” he said, referring to the primary election date. “The further down some of these people go in the polls, the more desperate they become.”

Gray said Quander had done an “outstanding job in public safety,” drawing a round of applause from the dozens of administration deputies and other supporters in attendance at the St. Elizabeths Hospital chapel.

Both Gray and Quander expressed confidence in Ellerbe, who has been a focus of increasing criticism for three years as his department has undergone crises related to equipment maintenance, response times and its overall readiness. In the most recent incident, the department was deeply scrutinized after 77-year-old Medric Cecil Mills Jr. died last month after collapsing from a cardiac event; personnel on duty at a firehouse across the street failed to respond to pleas for help, and separately 911 dispatchers bungled efforts to send a rescue unit to the scene.

A report issued by Quander’s office called for discipline against five firefighters and four 911 personnel. But it did not mentioned Ellerbe, and Quander said Wednesday it was inappropriate for Wells to lay the incident at the fire chief’s doorstep. “The Mills case focused on individuals who had a responsibility, and they failed in their responsibility,” he said. “That had nothing to do with Chief Ellerbe. It had everything to do with the individual firefighters.”

But he said he was not necessarily surprised by Wells’s call for his own resignation: “I understand politics,” he said.

Wells said he was “stunned” to learn there was no plan to deal with the lapses in the Mills case. Asked Wednesday to detail improvements residents can expect for the fire department in coming years, Gray mentioned goals of hiring more D.C. residents into firefighter jobs, improving the state of the department’s fleet and renovating firehouses. He did not mention improving the department’s emergency response performance.

On Wednesday, Wells said Gray’s response was indicative of the issues at stake. “That’s another example of the mayor not taking responsibility for what happened, instead of saying what he’s going to do about it and how he’s going to fix the situation.”

That posture, Wells said, “is disrespectful for anyone who has been on the other side of a failure of this fire department. … He’s the mayor. He wanted this job. Now he needs to step up.”

 

Related: Funeral held for D.C. man stricken near fire station

 

 

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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