D.C. fire chief Ellerbe to step down in July, ending tenure marred by service complaints


In an interview Wednesday, D.C. fire chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe said he had not been forced out. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The District’s embattled fire chief, Kenneth B. Ellerbe, said Wednesday that he will step down July 2, ending a three-year term marked by consistent complaints of poor services that critics said endangered the lives of D.C. residents.

His tenure was marred by a series of failures by firefighters and medical personnel, including delays in patient care and the death of an elderly man when cries for help from bystanders went ignored by firefighters inside a nearby fire station. The chief spent 31 years with the agency, leaving only in 2009 for 18 months to run a department in Florida.

In an interview Wednesday, Ellerbe said he had not been forced out, although it became clear that he would not survive in his job through the end of the year. For months, the city’s firefighters union has called for his ouster, as has D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who chairs the public safety committee. His most ardent supporter, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), lost his reelection bid in April, and the two leading candidates for Gray’s seat have said they would not retain the chief.

Ellerbe’s term was noted for a divisive dispute with the department’s labor union, with each side blaming the other for problems including poor fleet maintenance to slow response times. His critics as well as his supporters said the contentious relationship impeded reforms and led to a succession of negative headlines that prompted lawmakers to label the fire department a national embarrassment.

Ellerbe agreed to the interview with The Washington Post on the condition that it would not report the news before 11 p.m. Wednesday.

Ellerbe, 54, said he wants to give his interim successor time to run the department and possibly prove worthy of being permanently appointed to the post. A spokesman said the interim leader will be Assistant Chief Eugene Jones, a native Washingtonian who worked for the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department before joining the District’s department 18 months ago.

In February, Wells called for Ellerbe to resign, saying the department’s many problems were indicative of systemic issues and a dysfunctional culture that could not be blamed on a handful of bad firefighters.

“From burning ambulances, uncertified fire trucks, and no procurement plan to adequately equip our fire and emergency personnel, to a shortage of paramedics, delayed response to emergencies, and poor training and management, the Department has enormous and urgent challenges to overcome,” Wells wrote in a letter.

Ellerbe, who grew up in the District and attended Calvin Coolidge High School and the University of the District of Columbia, said that in retirement, he plans to spend time with his 82-year-old father, who lives with him in Washington.

In overseeing a department of about 2,000 firefighters, paramedics and EMTs, Ellerbe listed a number of his successes: a new effort to hire paramedics after months of shortages, purchasing 30 new ambulances, and reining in spending and overtime. He said his biggest challenge was to complete a merger of firefighting and medical services to reflect today’s reality that most calls are for medical emergencies, not fires.

“This leadership has attempted some very bold changes,” Ellerbe said Wednesday, adding that he accepts the criticism as part of his job. “If you are willing to move an agency that has been stuck in tradition for over 200 years into a new environment, and you expect to fly under the radar, you are fooling yourself.”

The chief, who is paid $187,302 a year, denied that his dispute with the union jeopardized public safety, but he said it “may have amplified the incidents that occurred.” He blamed the media for highlighting what he said were five problem calls out of 160,000 annual emergency runs. “We expect the things that go wrong will be magnified and the things that go right will go largely unobserved,” he said, adding that firefighters may “feel discouraged about the behavior of the few that overshadowed all the good work of the many.”

But high-profile problems seemed to flare up consistently during Ellerbe’s tenure: An ambulance assigned to the presidential motorcade ran out of gas on the White House lawn; a police officer lay injured on the street waiting for help that arrived from a neighboring jurisdiction; and a firefighter retired to his bunk to read while a man was dying of a heart attack across the street.

That latter case, in January, was the most devastating blow to Ellerbe. Firefighters inside a station in Northeast Washington refused to help 77-year-old Medric “Cecil” Mills, who had collapsed of a heart attack across the street. Firefighters wrongly told bystanders that they had to call 911 before the crew could respond, and Mills later died.

Outrage ricocheted from Mills’s family to lawmakers at the John A. Wilson Building, revealing what critics called a lax culture inside a station that was endemic of the department. A stinging report recommended that five firefighters be disciplined, although the highest-ranking lieutenant retired before she could be sanctioned.

Ellerbe cited Mills and the death of a man a year earlier, who also suffered through a prolonged ambulance delay that occurred when a large number of firefighters called in sick on New Year’s Eve, raising questions of a sickout.

“The Medric Mills case left me infuriated and disturbed because of the inability to take immediate action regarding the employees responsible,” Ellerbe said. Concerning the other death, the chief said, “Folks called in sick and showed what I considered to be a callous disregard in an effort to make a point, or maybe not.”

The Mills case highlighted a long-standing issue that predates Ellerbe and that the chief said he has tried to fix through efforts to change schedules and redeploy ambulances to more smoothly integrate firefighting and medical services. Those reforms were first called for in 2006 when a New York Times reporter and editor died after emergency personnel mistook injuries suffered during a mugging as a result of drunkenness, and they labeled the incident a low-priority call.

The death of David E. Rosenbaum remains the standard by which the department is judged, and recommendations from a report have yet to be fully implemented. A key demand from a commission formed after his death was to cross-train firefighters as paramedics and paramedics as firefighters. Many departments across the country do this in some form, and Ellerbe said he believed the transformation was inevitable given that firefighters in the District and elsewhere are more likely to respond to medical emergencies than fires.

But labor leaders and lawmakers — even those who generally agreed with the overall change in direction — opposed how Ellerbe wanted to implement that. The feud grew so bitter that firefighters superimposed the chief’s face onto Osama bin Laden’s body on posters, while Ellerbe’s supporters suggested that the union sanctioned sickouts and set fire to its own equipment in acts of sabotage.

In the interview, Ellerbe declined to address his staunchest critics, Wells and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), saying his thoughts about them were “private.” He said that he never offered his resignation, even during the Mills case, and that his goal has always been to deliver “safe service in the nation’s capital.”

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