D.C. fire chief to appear before council in wake of union’s no-confidence vote

The District’s fire chief, who has been handed a no-confidence vote from his rank and file, is set on Thursday to face the D.C. Council’s public safety committee over questions about his department’s ability to respond to emergencies.

Both the chief, Kenneth B. Ellerbe, and the head of the firefighters Local 36 are scheduled to testify. On Monday, the union voted 300 to 37 to publicly admonish the chief and what labor members called his “two-year record of failed leadership.”

(Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST) - DC Fire and EMS Chief Kenneth Ellerbe

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Inspector General’s report on D.C. fire department
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Inspector General’s report on D.C. fire department

Union President Edward C. Smith said Ellerbe’s management “places our members and the public needlessly in harm’s way.”

In recent weeks, Ellerbe has increasingly come under scrutiny over lengthy ambulance response times and questions about whether firetrucks and ambulances are properly maintained.

Ellerbe declined to be interviewed, but he issued a statement saying he is “very optimistic about the department’s future and encouraged by the service we provide to District residents and visitors.” The chief, a native of the District who came here from Sarasota, Fla., in 2011, added, “I am deeply committed to resolving the issues before us.” He previously said the department has reached the “tipping point” in regard to slow response times.

Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul A. Quander Jr. said Monday that support for the chief and “his efforts to modernize and move the agency forward” remains strong.

Along with the no-confidence vote, the 1,800-member union released its own blueprint for change Monday, laying out a plan that calls for more hires, resources and training. It runs counter to Ellerbe’s proposal to pare down the department, have shorter but more frequent shifts and redeploy apparatus to match up to times when the most 911 calls are made.

The debate over contrasting visions on fire and medical service comes in the wake of a string of embarrassing incidents. Those include delays in ambulances reaching injured patients, including a D.C. police officer, and inaccurate data that Ellerbe’s command staff gave to the D.C. Council last month overstating the number of firetrucks and engines available in the department’s reserve fleet. The inspector general’s office released a report Friday that concluded that many reserve emergency vehicles would not be able to help “during large-scale operations or mass casualty events.”

Councilman Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), the public safety committee chairman, said he will demand on Thursday that Ellerbe explain how his staff submitted information for a Feb. 20 oversight hearing showing the department had an adequate reserve fleet when officials there had been given the inspector general’s report one day earlier.

“Did they purposely provide false information to the council, or were they operating under false information?” said Wells, who is considering running for mayor.

The councilman said he still has confidence in Ellerbe. But he said that testimony by the chief and his aides at the February hearing “did not give me the confidence” that the department can adequately respond to calls. “I do not trust the facts I’ve been given.”

Monday’s union vote — held at the labor group’s main hall in Northeast Washington — was the third time during the tenure of six fire chiefs that Local 36 has expressed no confidence in leadership, dating back to 1996. It bears no legal significance, but it puts the chief under added scrutiny.

Smith, the union head, said a routine meeting attracts about 50 firefighters. He called Monday’s turnout of more than 300 unprecedented and noted that 350 firefighters who were on duty at the time could not attend.

The union’s vote came three days after a report by D.C. Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby found that the department is supposed to have 12 engines ready to deploy in its reserve fleet. On July 12, fire officials listed all as available. But investigators found that only one engine was capable of responding to a fire.

The department also is supposed to have 31 ambulances on reserve, and on July 22, at least 21 were out of service, the report found. Three of them were in the repair shop for extended periods of time — 794, 664 and 257 days.

At a storage facility on Gallatin Street NE, the inspector general found only two of the 10 reserve engines that were supposed to be housed there, and neither would start. Only two of eight trucks were there, the report says, and one wouldn’t start and the other was out of service because of a broken ladder.

The inspector general said many supervisors complained about an inadequate reserve fleet, that firefighters were routinely sent home because there weren’t enough vehicles to staff and that repairs were often poorly done. The report notes that numerous attempts failed to fix air conditioners in ambulances, resulting in temperatures soaring to 120 degrees in compartments and rendering many paramedics ill.

“Deficiencies in the quality and timeliness of repairs and replacements reduces the number of vehicles available for both frontline service and large-scale emergencies and mobilizations,” the inspector general’s report found. “This impedes their ability to respond to neighborhood emergencies . . . which obviously can affect the quality of emergency services provided to District residents.”

 
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