On Wednesday, Paul A. Quander Jr., the deputy mayor for public safety, said he requested that police look into the fires “to be certain that nothing untoward is occurring to these vehicles that could possibly put the public at risk.”
Union officials took umbrage at his use of the word “untoward,” saying it appears that firefighters and paramedics are being accused of sabotaging equipment to exaggerate their allegations of management incompetence.
Quander declined to elaborate on what he meant. But his comments — and his decision to elevate a department inquiry into a police matter — fueled more harsh rhetoric in the poisonous relationship between the labor group and city leaders.
The deputy mayor said it’s unusual for the engines of two ambulances to catch fire hours apart. He said that the fires “raised concerns for me” and that he wanted to make sure there were not “other issues at play” aside from mechanical problems.
“I’m not going to speculate,” Quander said. “I want to be guided by the facts.”
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said the fire department “is becoming an embarrassment to the city,” adding that there must be “a lot of citizens who think there is a meltdown going on.”
In an interview, Mendelson (D) declined to assess blame, saying the “downward spiral” is a result of increasing labor tensions and a demoralized workforce, in which he said jobs at all levels “are not being done as carefully as they need to be done.”
The chairman said that “with the deputy mayor’s involvement, the citizens are safe.” Asked whether residents are safe with the embattled fire chief, Kenneth B. Ellerbe, Mendelson responded, “I said what I said.” He noted several crises that he said Quander stepped in to resolve.
Mendelson declined to say whether Ellerbe should resign, but he said, “I think the chief has to get control of the department.”
Ellerbe was traveling and not available for comment. But he told WTTG (Channel 5) on Wednesday that the department is “in a critical period of change” and that he has been “working hard behind the scenes” to address the problems.
Tuesday’s fires occurred while the ambulances were on calls, one idling outside a patient’s home in Southeast Washington, the other outside a hospital emergency room in Northwest. A fire department spokesman said Wednesday evening that the latter fire might have started in an air compressor but a final determination had not been made.
Last Thursday, an ambulance assigned to President Obama’s motorcade — Medic 1 — ran out of gas and was left stranded on the south lawn of the White House.