Under the midnight sky in mid-February, hulking fire Truck 13 occupied a quiet street corner in the Trinidad section of Northeast Washington. The driver stared at the empty intersection. In the back seat, a firefighter-paramedic studied a manual. Another firefighter in the rear of the ladder truck leaned his head against the window.
Nearly a mile away, their firehouse, designated Engine 10, was empty. A grueling number of runs has historically made it among the most desirable posts for D.C. firefighters, who live for the action of the job. It is known as the “House of Pain.”
But this is a new type of pain.
Since December, the firefighters have been ordered to leave their firehouse most nights and park their truck on the street for four hours as a crime deterrent. It is called “soft posting.” They view it as veiled punishment.
“It’s got to be retaliation,” said Ed Lehan, a sergeant who works on Truck 13 at Engine 10. “We don’t have any protection. We don’t have bulletproof vests.”
In the past three years, the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department has been ravaged by plummeting morale, strife between the rank and file and management, and a series of public blunders under the tumultuous tenure of Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe.
While the District’s population surged and the demand for medical calls increased, more than 60 paramedics have left in the past three years. At the same time, there is growing concern over Ellerbe’s commitment to a 2007 task force effort that sought to reform and unify the department as it dealt with the demands of more medical calls.
Across the department, firefighters say they are overworked and underpaid, and fear retaliation for speaking out about conditions that could jeopardize the public, according to interviews with current firefighters, higher-ups in the department and retired employees. They say Ellerbe unfairly blames the rank and file for systemic failures, resulting in paranoia and deep anxiety.
The rancor has intensified in the past year. Ellerbe’s face was digitally imposed onto Osama bin Laden’s body and circulated in text messages among firefighters. “Taliban” is their code word for Ellerbe allies. During the holiday season, a photo of the chief’s face was shaded green and transposed onto the body of the Grinch.
Nowhere is the tension more evident than at Engine 10, which has become an epicenter in the war between the rank and file and the chief. By an unofficial count, at least 10 of its firefighters have recently had disciplinary actions against them or found themselves at odds with Ellerbe, which some claim is because of their whistleblowing efforts.
“Every report you do, everything you do, you’re being watched,” said Sgt. Joe Papariello, who was moved to Engine 10 in the fall, several months after he testified before the D.C. Council that Ellerbe failed to support the department’s paramedics.
Ellerbe does not dispute the claim that he is keeping a watchful eye.
“I live in the city. I’m all over the place. Tell them I am ubiquitous,” Ellerbe said in an interview Friday. “I am omnipresent if that’s what they want to think. I am watching all of the time. Because I care about what happens in this city.”
No other firehouses now participate in soft posting, but Ellerbe rejected the idea that the plan was created as a way to punish the Engine 10 crew. It was started, he said, in collaboration with the office of the deputy mayor for public safety, Paul A. Quander Jr., as a way to cut down on crime and establish a community presence in the neighborhood. Ellerbe also said soft postings have been used in the past near area swimming pools.
“To say that it’s personal? I don’t know those guys,” he said. “Innuendo, assumption, rumors . . . in this department, they all take on a life of their own.”
The most recent upheaval stems from the Jan. 25 death of Medric Cecil Mills Jr., who did not receive help from five firefighters at Engine 26 after he suffered a heart attack across the street from the Northeast Washington firehouse.
“Simply put, poor leadership has brought this once-great department to ruins,” Ed Smith, president of the firefighters union, said last week at a D.C. Council hearing about Mills’s death.
Ellerbe has defended his performance amid recent calls for his ouster from three D.C. Council members.
A hallmark of his tenure, he said, has been a push for accountability.
“I’m not going to be embarrassed. I’m not going to be intimidated. I’m not going to be dissuaded. I know what we have to do in terms of getting this organization moving in the right direction,” he said. “There is no quit in me at all. The whole idea seems to be ‘if we embarrass the department and the chief enough, then he’ll quit.’ No.”
In the summer, he reported success in lowering response times by focusing on a “chute time” measure, which is the amount of time it takes firefighters to leave the firehouse after they hear the alarm. But firefighters say the result has been a culture of fear. Ellerbe disputes that notion. He said his initiative sought to clean up a culture that values fighting fires over medical calls.
“Somebody has made a call out there and needs our help. The idea of lackadaisically finishing your sandwich or watching the end of this TV program or slowly approaching the apparatus is not acceptable.”
Mayor Vincent C. Gray, who appointed Ellerbe, has defended the chief’s tenure.
“We’re having to change the department, which some people like and some people don’t like,” Gray (D) said in a recent interview. “He’s taken a lot of the heat for changing things that some people don’t want changed.”
On Monday, Ellerbe appeared before a D.C. Council oversight hearing headed by Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) on the failure of firefighters to help the 77-year-old Mills. The chief sat next to his boss, Quander, who said he was “deeply troubled” by the “apathy” and “disregard for human life” that firefighters showed that day.
Both pledged that those responsible would be held accountable.
“When I heard about this, I was furious, because it should not have happened,” Ellerbe said.
The day after the hearing, Wells, a candidate in next month’s mayoral primary, called for the resignations of Quander and Ellerbe.
“Blaming racial divisions, union membership, or other perceived motivations for the Department’s dysfunction must end,” Wells wrote in a letter to Gray.
“It is a disgrace to place responsibility on the rank-and-file employees who put their lives on the line for D.C. citizens every day,” he added in a news release.
On Friday, Ellerbe will appear before the council for his annual performance hearing. The agenda is expected to revisit the department’s recent high-profile embarrassments.
Early on New Year’s Day 2013, Durand Ford Sr., 71, did not receive timely aid and died of cardiac arrest, after a night when a staffing shortage limited the number of ambulances. Last March, a D.C. police officer was hit by a car and had to wait 15 minutes for an ambulance.
In August, an ambulance on a White House call ran out of fuel and was abandoned on the South Lawn. In the same week, two ambulances caught fire, and pictures of the flames spread rapidly on social media.
“We make the news more than the Kardashians,” said Nick Orosz, a firefighter-paramedic assigned to Engine 15. “You’ve never heard of a fire department having this many problems.”
In the fall, two independent reports were released, one focused on paramedic shortages and the other detailing fleet mismanagement.
“Mistakes will be made,” Ellerbe said. “When you have an organization this big that has been floundering for 15 to 20 years, out of the public eye, a lot of these problems didn’t just come up. But now this stuff is bubbling up every day. And rather than try to hide it and cover it up, we’re here, wide open.”
The department had pledged seven years ago to enact changes.
The instigation was the death of retired New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum, who had been beaten in a robbery Jan. 6, 2006, near his home in upper Northwest Washington. He was transported in an ambulance on a lengthy, circuitous route to Howard University Hospital before languishing for hours untreated in a hallway. He died two days later of brain trauma.
An inspector general’s report exposed an “unacceptable chain of failure,” along with general “apathy” and “indifference.”
The Rosenbaum family agreed to settle a lawsuit forgoing damages against the District in exchange for a full review of the city’s emergency response system and meaningful reform. One of the key recommendations that followed was to move toward a force where all personnel could both fight fires and respond to medical emergencies.
“The aim of this recommendation is to improve performance and eliminate a cultural divide that has persisted within the agency for too long,” Mayor Adrian M. Fenty wrote in a letter that accompanied the Rosenbaum task force report in 2007. The divide had created “two performance standards, competition between divergent missions, and inequities in pay and benefits.”
The plan was to focus more on the medical mission of the department, including a push to hire more firefighters dual-trained as paramedics.
There was a consensus that the report would serve as a blueprint. Although a handful of the recommendations required legislation, most did not. They were simply policy guidelines, easy to ignore with the passage of time.
Ellerbe grew up in the District and graduated from Calvin Coolidge High School in 1978. He spent most of his career working his way up through the D.C. firefighter ranks.
“I came up old school,” he said, rolling up his white dress-shirt sleeves. “These scars on my elbows come from crawling down burning corridors looking for kids.”
After a brief stint as the fire chief in Sarasota, Fla., he returned in 2011 to take the helm of the D.C. department.
In his first few months as chief, Ellerbe took steps to carry out the Rosenbaum recommendations. He issued a memo requiring all employees to log on to a computer and reread the task force report. He followed a suggestion to strip the department of its historic name, the D.C. Fire Department, and rename it the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. Firefighters were banned from wearing old DCFD apparel and had to paint over the logo at D.C. firehouses.
The idea was to be more inclusive. Instead, it sowed division in a department where firefighter pride is paramount. Many of the rank and file continue to wear their old DCFD T-shirts when they are off duty.
Over time, though, the department has shifted away from some recommendations. Ellerbe’s predecessor, Dennis L. Rubin, had put into place EMS-focused battalion chiefs who would provide 24-7 supervision of medical responses. Only one remains, and he works a day shift.
Claude Ford Jr., a former EMS battalion chief, said he was troubled by the dismantling of the strong oversight structure. Before he retired in 2012, his position was eliminated and he was transferred.
Ellerbe “did not explain where we were going, how we were going to get there,” said Ford, who lives in Port Charlotte, Fla. “The bad blood and the mistrust is so ingrained now that it would be difficult to turn that around.”
Ellerbe did not address in the interview why some of the EMS hierarchy was dissolved, but he said he eventually wants to restore those positions.
The key recommendation that has been allowed to languish in recent years was the one pertaining to dual training, particularly the hiring and retention of firefighter-paramedics.
Under Rubin, an influx of young firefighter-paramedics came from across the country in 2009-10 to serve in the nation’s capital, hailing from Washington state, Wisconsin and Ohio, among other places.
They were touted as the promising future of a fire department striving to be among the nation’s best in delivering medical care. As the task force had recommended, they were cross-trained in fire and paramedic care.
Ellerbe said he has not forgotten the Rosenbaum family’s loss, but he believes he is doing what is best for the department and the city in placing an emphasis on medical calls. He has not adhered strictly to the dual-training strategy, saying department morale benefits when new hires are allowed to choose their path.
“A lot of times what we’ve found is that people want to provide medical service, but they don’t want to ride a firetruck,” he said. “We’ve also found that some of our firefighters don’t want to do medical work.”
No new firefighter-paramedics have been hired. Instead, he has brought in more than 100 fresh high school graduates as part of a cadet program for D.C. youth that he revived. They are trained as firefighter-emergency medical technicians, who have a lower level of medical knowledge than paramedics. A recent graduate of the cadet program was on duty at Engine 26 when Mills collapsed. He later said he did not know how to respond to the emergency.
Last year, Ellerbe also hired eight single-role paramedics, who are not trained as firefighters and can ride only on ambulances. Plans are in place to hire more single-role paramedics, despite a public safety committee report in June that questioned why the department would stray from the Rosenbaum blueprint.
“I am comfortable that we are hiring the right people,” the chief said.
Ellerbe has publicly stated that the reason he doesn’t hire more firefighter-paramedics is that he fears he would have to lay them off if his shift-change proposal is adopted. He wants to go to a system of more days worked on 12-hour shifts instead of the current schedule of 24-hour shifts followed by three days off. He thinks this would be a more efficient use of resources, providing more-alert firefighters as well as allowing more training, less overtime costs and better staffing of ambulances. Shorter shifts was one of the recommendations of the Rosenbaum task force.
“If you’re working once every four days, or 96 days a year, for full-time pay, how dedicated are you, really?” he said in the interview.
The proposed schedule has been used in the city in the past, and D.C. firefighters dubbed it “the divorce shift.” Many are concerned about the impact of the increased work hours on their family lives in addition to the travel time for those who live outside the District, some from as far as Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
“They can dub it anything they want,” Ellerbe said. “It’s the most effective. And it’s the most efficient work schedule for this type of work, particularly because of our role in emergency medical care.”
Recently, an arbitrator’s report advised against the shift change, citing a study that expressed concerns about first responders’ ability to function without proper rest. It also ensured that firefighters would be paid overtime if they had to work more than 42 hours a week, resulting in a victory cry from the union. But Ellerbe said he is awaiting a separate ruling from the D.C. Public Employee Relations Board.
“I’m not here to fight,” he said. “I’m here to make the necessary changes to improve the efficiency of service.”
The discontent among the firefighter-paramedics was highlighted in a 79-page document by the D.C. inspector general’s office in December, titled “FEMS Fails To Address Critical Staffing Shortages.”
Its authors attributed the exodus of paramedics to heavy workload, limited career advancement, potential for higher pay and better benefits elsewhere, an evaluation process that is focused on blame, and inadequate continuing education.
According to the report, as of summer 2013, there were 231 paramedics within the department, which has about 2,130 full-time employees.
“It’s sad because I know these guys. They’re my friends,” said Jamie McMahon, a firefighter-paramedic who moved to the District from Wisconsin in 2010. “They got what they could from this place and moved on. I don’t want to give up yet.”
Brandon Streicher, a 25-year-old firefighter-paramedic, is less optimistic.
“I came to the city because I wanted to work for the DCFD, an organization filled with pride and tradition,” said Streicher, who arrived three years ago from the suburbs of Milwaukee, his belongings crammed into his Toyota Camry for the 13-hour drive. “That has changed.”
Streicher works at Engine 11 in Columbia Heights on bustling 14th Street NW.
“Morale is absolutely at an all-time low,” he said. “We work in a fear-based environment. Every cardiac arrest call we go on . . . every house fire we go to . . . we fear retaliation and reprimands from upper management if the outcome isn’t favorable.”
Streicher said his biggest concern is the workload. Because of the paramedic shortage, firefighter-paramedics are sometimes required to work 36 straight hours. The 12-hour extension known as a “holdover” did not exist until the summer of 2012, according to the union, which has counted more than 1,000 holdovers since then.
Papariello, the sergeant paramedic transferred to Engine 10, oversees a team of four firefighters who volunteer to track holdovers and downgrades, which occur when a fire engine or an ambulance operates without its scheduled paramedic.
“It’s truly a matter of public safety,” Papariello said.
Over the past two years, Papariello has repeatedly testified in front of the D.C. Council about staffing and morale. He has suggested that Ellerbe has created a “manufactured crisis” by not retaining firefighter-paramedics.
“My goal was to tell the truth and to tell what’s going on out in the field,” Papariello said. “As long as I stick to the data, [Ellerbe] can’t hurt me.”
He has filed a Freedom of Information Act request in an effort to uncover information about why he was moved to Engine 10. Last week, as he was still waiting for that request to be filled, he was moved to another firehouse.
Across the District, the firehouses are known for their character.
Engine 3, “The Capitol Protector,” sits near a scenic Capitol Hill backdrop and regularly opens its doors to tourists who stop by to view an original steam pumper from the late 1800s. Engine 16, just blocks from the White House, proudly displays a “Midnight Express” insignia with a picture of an adrenaline-fueled Tasmanian devil.
Across the Anacostia River, Engine 33 stands like a secure fortress in Southeast Washington. Nicknamed “The Valley,” its logo is an ominous buzzard with blood dripping from its talons.
In many of the houses, there is an air of sadness at the plight of a once-proud department.
“You know things are bad when going to fires is the easy part of this job,” said Terry Williams, a lieutenant with 29 years on the job.
Some firefighters say the low morale can be seen in the increase in injury leave. Under Ellerbe, the number of on-duty injuries has soared, increasing by 70 percent from fiscal 2011 to 2012 to more than 530 injuries. Last fiscal year’s figures show 307 injuries, still well over the department’s goal of fewer than 175.
Ellerbe declined to speculate on what the numbers imply about morale. But he shrugged off his detractors with the bin Laden and Grinch artwork. They also sell “FLRB” decals online. “LRB” is the common slang for the chief’s name. “F” is an expletive.
“It’s not something unusual for people in leadership,” he said. “We have a president that is not liked by everybody. We have a mayor and council members who are not liked by everybody.”
Ellerbe often spends his time at the movies, usually by himself. Before or after the show, he likes to take a drive to check on his firefighters, traveling the streets in his black SUV with tinted windows.
“Most times I see them performing their work admirably,” he said. “If they don’t, I don’t walk away from it. This is where folks seem to think that I’m petty. But I will not walk past any thing that is not right.”
When he’s floating around at night, firefighters sound their own alarms, sending warnings by text that “LRB” is in the neighborhood.
Ellerbe enjoys that reaction.
“I’m going to see if I can’t clone my car and get about 10 of them, and strategically place them around the city,” he said, chuckling. “Or ask some clones of me to drive them.”
Awhile ago, at the “House of Pain” at Engine 10, a photo of Ellerbe in a clown suit was posted on the wall. One night, when they heard LRB was on the way, they took it down.
Peter Hermann and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.