In the background are long-standing tensions between managers and the local firefighters union over the direction of the department. The relationship hasn’t been helped by discord over management proposals that would deal with such concerns as longer emergency response times and a shortage of paramedics, in part, by concentrating more shifts during peak times of the day.
Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe has said the changes are necessary because more than 80 percent of the calls are for medical emergencies, not fires. Union leaders say that the chief has failed to hire paramedics fast enough to keep pace with attrition and that his mismanagement is forcing D.C. residents and visitors to wait longer for less-than-adequate care.
The new chairman of the D.C. Council’s public safety committee, Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), is taking a cautious approach. He said he has just begun to delve into a complex array of issues clouded by animosity between the union and the chief that renders virtually every detail subject to debate. During sworn testimony last month, Ellerbe and the union president, Edward C. Smith, could not even agree on how many paramedics left the department last year. Smith said 20; the chief said 12.
Wells, who is contemplating a run for mayor, said he is focusing on issues with the greatest effect on the public. He has asked the D.C. inspector general to investigate the allegations of sexual harassment at the training academy and the circumstances under which fire engine mechanics earned as much as $97,000 in overtime in the past fiscal year.
Ellerbe, testifying at a public safety committee hearing last month, said the overtime payments were made to 10 mechanics because managers allowed too many of their co-workers to take leave at the same time. He promised new protocols to keep it from happening again. “We weren’t paying as much attention to it as we are now,” he said.
The chief said he reacted quickly to sexual harassment allegations in which two female recruits said an instructor’s inappropriate remarks made them feel uncomfortable.
At the hearing, Ellerbe tried to win support for his plan to change the way firefighters’ working hours are scheduled. Firefighters now work a single 24-hour shift followed by three days off. He wants them to work shorter but more frequent shifts. He has also proposed taking advanced-life-support paramedics off the street from 1 to 7 a.m. to free up resources for later in the day. Union leaders are vehemently opposed to altering shift times, arguing that changes would disrupt the lives of 1,800 members.