Head of D.C. firefighters union says members are relieved that embattled chief is departing


D.C. Fire and EMS Chief, Kenneth B. Ellerbe speaks with a Washington Post reporter at the John A. Wilson Building. The chief will announce his retirement during a press conference on Thursday. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The head of the labor organization representing District firefighters said Thursday that he is relieved the D.C. fire chief is stepping down next month, a move the union president said will “restore public confidence” in the beleaguered agency.

“It is a chapter in this department that I’m glad is over,” said Edward C. Smith, who leads the 1,800-member International Association of Firefighters Local 36. “We look forward to working with new leadership to restore the department to where it should be.”

The 54-year-old fire chief, Kenneth B. Ellerbe, announced Wednesday that he would retire July 2, ending a three-year tenure marked by tension with the union and repeated delays in ambulance response times, during which two people died.

Ellerbe said in an interview that he had no regrets and listed accomplishments that included buying 30 new ambulances, hiring 22 badly needed paramedics, renovating fire stations and improving response times. The chief declined to discuss his many critics, calling his thoughts “private.”

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), the chief’s strongest supporter, even as D.C. Council members called for his firing, issued a statement Thursday tanking Ellerbe for “all his years of service to the people of our city.” The mayor said: “His effort and dedication have been commendable, and I wish him well in all his future endeavors.”

Speaking to reporters at a senior picnic on Thursday, Gray added that Ellerbe departed "of his own volition”.

Several other District officials Thursday weighed in on Ellerbe’s announcement as well. D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said the fact Gray still has seven months left in his term shouldn't keep the mayor from trying to recruit a new, permanent chief -- someone, he said, "everyone wouldn't be willing to get behind."

 "It's not in the department's best interest to limp on with an interim chief," said Mendelson, who chaired the committee overseeing public safety agencies before becoming council chairman two years ago. Gray told reporters Thursday that he does not plan to start a search for a permanent replacement, leaving that task to his successor.

 Both leading mayoral candidates -- Democratic nominee Muriel E. Bowser and independent David A. Catania -- have said they would dismiss Ellerbe if elected.

 Despite the internal turmoil within the department that has at times broken along lines of race, age and geography, Mendelson said he believed there are candidates within the department or at least familiar with the department who could lead it forward -- with a particular focus, he said, on emergency medical services.

 "I think there should be a broad search, but the ideal candidate is someone who has been in the department and knows the department," he said. "They understand the dynamics within the department and therefore are in the best position to structure and communicate reform that gets the most buy-in from the rank and file. "

 Asked to assess Ellerbe's tenure, Mendelson declined to elaborate.

 "I will just stick with this: There were a lot of good things that were accomplished under Kenny. But clearly there was a lot of controversy as well," he said.

 Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), in whose ward Ellerbe lives, said she was surprised by Ellerbe's departure and gave him overall good marks. She was particularly pleased, she said, by his support for the cadet program that trains graduates of the city's public high schools to be firefighters.

 "There has not been a fire chief [where] I have not received a lot of complaints and dissatisfaction," she said. "The firefighters are very vocal. ... In my personal interactions with the department, it's been all positive."

Smith, in his first public comments, said he would not engage in a back and forth over how the department was run since Ellerbe, a 31-year department veteran, took over in 2009. The two had sparred often, and each accused the other of policies that affected public safety. District officials at one point suggested firefighters were sabotaging their own equipment to make the department look bad, which the union denied.

During one tense period, Ellerbe accused the union of either organizing or standing by as more than 100 firefighters called out sick on New Year’s Day 2013. Durand A. Ford Sr., a 71-year-old retired accountant died after waiting more than 30 minutes for ambulance to take him to the hospital after he collapsed in his Southeast Washington home.

In January, firefighters inside a station in Northeast ignored cries for help after 77-year-old Medric “Cecil” Mills collapsed across the street. He later died.

Ellerbe, in his interview, cited both these cases as vexing. He said he was disturbed because of his inability to quickly punish firefighters in the Mills case: A veteran lieutenant was able to retire after a disciplinary hearing but before she could be punished, and hearings for others involved are scheduled for later this month.

In the Ford case, Ellerbe said, “Folks called in sick and showed what I considered to be callous disregard in an effort to make a point.” The union denied orchestrating or allowing a sick-out and said the large number of absences were indicative of an overworked and overwhelmed department with too few staff.

On Thursday, Smith, the union chief, said he wanted to look forward to a new administration.

The interim chief, Eugene Jones, takes over July 2 and will run the 2,000-member department until at least January, when a new administration takes over. Gray lost in the Democratic primary in April, and contenders for his job have said they would not retain Ellerbe.

Ellerbe said he is stepping down now to allow Jones a chance to apply for the top job and have a few months to prove himself. Smith said he is pushing for a national search and that the labor union should be a part of it. The union did not have a say when Gray chose Ellerbe.

It is unclear what will happen to two of Ellerbe’s signature proposals — changing firefighters work schedules and a new ambulance deployment plan. Both have been met with objections from the union and the new schedule could wind up in court. An arbitrator recently ruled in favor of the District, but the union said it may challenge.

Ellerbe said Thursday that he hopes his interim successor and whoever gets the job permanently moves forward with both proposals. Smith said he hopes the issues are tabled until permanent leadership is found a new mayor is in the John A. Wilson Building.

Department critics have repeatedly said that a series of problems under Ellerbe have undermined public confidence in their fire-fighting and medical service. “Let’s fix this department and get back to the job we’re supposed to be doing,” said Smith, who testified at a recent Council hearing that relations with Ellerbe could not be restored. “I’m not going to look backward. There’s a sense of relief in the fire houses. But there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

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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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