D.C. fire department faces scrutiny at council hearing over death of man outside station

An escalating debate over problems with the District’s emergency responders shifted Monday from the actions of a few firefighters to questions of whether more systemic failures permeate the department.

At a hearing of the D.C. Council’s public safety committee — held after the death of a 77-year-old man who collapsed across the street from a firehouse — the chairman of the committee noted repeated problems with response times over the past year.

“Time and again, there have been breakdowns,” said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who is running for mayor. “And the response has been to focus on the failure of individuals. . . . With one crisis after another, the fundamental trust and faith we should have in emergency response is faltering.”

Wells said change is needed, but he wasn’t specific about what that should be. “This is on our watch,” he said.

The deputy mayor for public safety, Paul A. Quander Jr., tried to shift blame from Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe to five firefighters and four dispatchers for failing to help Medric “Cecil” Mills Jr. when he collapsed outside a station in Northeast Washington. Mills died of a heart attack at a hospital a few hours later.

“This is nothing that has to do with policy and procedure,” Quander said. “This has to do with moral character.” He later added: “We failed Mr. Mills when he needed us. That is simply unacceptable.”

Mills’s son joined other family members in urging District officials to address infighting and labor-management disputes that have prevented improvement at the Fire and Emergency Medical Service Department.

“The chain of events that resulted in my father’s death requires change in how the D.C. fire and EMS department is run and how it is held responsible,” Medric Mills III said.

Ellerbe, who gave brief answers to several questions from Wells at the hearing, did not offer separate remarks about the incident.

On Monday night, Ellerbe said that the hearing was what he expected — the criticism and the outrage expressed by the community. He said that trying to shift the department’s priorities from fighting fires to responding to medical emergencies continues to be a challenge.

“We’re committed to changing the culture of the department,” Ellerbe said. “The firefighters should respond to medical calls with the same fervor they do to fires.”

Edward Smith, president of the firefighters union, said problems stem from management.

D.C. officials released this 911 call on Friday in the death of Medric Cecil Mills Jr., who was denied help near a District firehouse last month. (The Washington Post, DC Fire & EMS)

“The recent events are a national embarrassment, and [we] continue to be exasperated with inept leadership,” he testified. “Simply put, poor leadership has brought this once great department to ruins.”

The incident began Jan. 25 after a newly hired firefighter told bystanders pleading for assistance for the elder Mills that they’d have to call 911 to get anyone to respond. Compounding the problem, a separate series of errors sent an ambulance to the wrong address. A report on the case issued last week by Quander recommends disciplinary action be taken against five firefighters and four dispatchers at the 911 center. One firefighter, the lieutenant in charge of the station on Rhode Island Avenue NE, faces an internal hearing next week.

Meanwhile, Ellerbe has held onto his job through more than a year of controversy over slow response times, an injured D.C. police officer and a man who died of a heart attack on a day that one-third of the firefighters on duty called in sick. The mayor’s spokesman made it clear Monday that Ellerbe’s job is safe for now.

“The minute we lose confidence in him, he will no longer be employed,” Pedro Ribeiro said.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) has called for Ellerbe’s resignation. Other members of the public safety committee, including three running for mayor, have declined to comment on whether they would keep Ellerbe.

The case comes amid changes being implemented after the 2006 death of retired New York Times reporter and editor David E. Rosenbaum. He died after D.C. emergency personnel mistook the effects of injuries from a vicious mugging for public intoxication and labeled the incident low priority.

The hearing also featured the testimony of loved ones of others who have complained about the department. A friend of 39-year-old Jose Santos Ruiz Perez’s accused D.C. police officers and firefighters of mistreating the man, whom they found passed out and drunk on a street corner in Columbia Heights on Jan. 10. The friend said that police officers waved off an ambulance and that they took Perez up to his living room couch, where he was found dead five hours later.

But Quander said that an officer did not send the ambulance away and that the officer and firefighters took him upstairs after he refused treatment and showed no signs of being a danger to himself or others. Quander said firefighters did not fill out the correct paperwork or seek out a supervisor before deciding not to take Perez to a hospital. That case is under review by federal prosecutors.

The hearing became a standoff, although everyone expressed sorrow for the Mills family.

Some union leaders said that what happened to Mills was foreseeable more than a decade ago, when the first efforts were made to merge firefighting and emergency medical care. Steven Chasin, the chief steward for the union representing paramedics, told Wells, “I told you so.” The chairman replied that the Mills case was a failure of character, not of inadequate staffing or budget cuts.

When Wells asked whether Ellerbe had told chiefs to make sure firefighters know they have a duty to help people in need, Kenny Lyons, president of the paramedics union, said, “It’s embarrassing that Chief Ellerbe has to issue a special order to mandate compassion.”

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