D.C. fire department hearing explores tension between Ellerbe and the rank and file


D.C. Fire and EMS Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe has undergone more than a year of tight scrutiny following a series of incidents that reflected poor management of the deparment’s fleet and slow response times to emergencies. (Jared Soares/For The Washington Post)

Facing a fire department in disarray over a string of recent failures, the chairman of the D.C. Council’s public safety committee pressed agency and union leaders at a hearing on Friday to restore the public trust.

But department and union officials who testified before D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) were unable to say how they would overcome acrimony between labor and management, which they agreed has hurt performance, damaged morale and is worrying residents about whether help will come when they dial 911.

“That’s a tough question,” the president of the firefighters union, Edward C. Smith, said when asked by the committee chairman how to ease tensions with the fire chief, Kenneth B. Ellerbe. “There’s a lot of bad blood.”

The annual oversight hearing conducted for most District agencies took on added significance a week after Wells, who is running for mayor, demanded Ellerbe’s resignation. Wells chastised the chief at a hearing last week over firefighters who failed to help 77-year-old Medric “Cecil” Mills Jr. when he collapsed outside a station in January and later died.

The tension between the union and the department leadership has been an issue for years, with each side repeatedly blaming the other when ambulances are delayed or other problems arise. But the acrimony has been thrust into public view recently as a series of delayed responses has put the fire department under strict scrutiny.

“This fight is having an impact on the people we serve,” Wells said during the hearing.

Kevin Byrne, a deputy fire chief and president of the Fire Officers Association, testified that when Ellerbe first arrived in 2011, he went after top officials, demoting some. “The new executive officer went to war with his senior staff,” Byrne said, setting a tenor of intimidation and fear that he said thundered through the department, and under which he said he could envision firefighters being scared to act on their own to help a man in distress.

But Lt. Porter Lawson — who runs the cadet program, which is under fire for graduating a 19-year-old firefighter who was standing watch at the fire station and turned away bystanders seeking help for Mills — warned that by blaming Ellerbe for problems, “We are destroying a department.”

Ellerbe has declined to step down and enjoys the backing of the District’s mayor. He said he has consistently called for change in the culture of a department for which 82 percent of its calls are for medical emergencies, rather than fires. He said he has proposed changing firefighter work schedules and ambulance deployment plans to better reflect peak needs, only to be rebuffed. He said response times have improved under his tenure.

“Transformational change is not quick, and it’s not an easy process,” Ellerbe said.

Wells questioned whether Ellerbe and his boss, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul A. Quander Jr., are fully committed to implementing reforms mandated eight years ago after the death of another resident, retired New York Times reporter and editor David E. Rosenbaum. Emergency personnel mistook injuries that Rosenbaum suffered from a mugging for drunkenness and labeled the incident a low-priority call.

One of the key provisions of that investigation was to cross-train firefighters and paramedics, creating so-called dual-role providers. That has proved difficult, with the union saying 60 paramedics have fled and that Ellerbe has mostly not replaced them. The chief recently hired a new class of single-role paramedics who would not become firefighters, reflecting the challenges of implementing the system.

On Friday, Wells questioned whether District leaders were now giving up on the directives that emerged after Rosenbaum’s death.

The chief said he would resume hiring dual-role firefighter-paramedics but is afraid his proposal to change schedules — which would result in fewer positions — would force him to lay them off if his plan is accepted. Quander said the department is committed to fully integrating the dual-role plan.

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Amy Brittain is part of The Post's investigative team.
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