“Chief Ellerbe gets blamed for a lot of things,” Quander said. “He was out of town, and he’s not responsible for putting gas in ambulances.”
Edward C. Smith, president of firefighters’ union Local 36, said the labor group welcomes an outside investigation into the fires and called on the National Transportation Safety Board to conduct a broader review of the department’s fleet. In a statement, Smith lashed out at Quander, saying the “only thing untoward behind these ambulance fires is the complete neglect by those in charge.”
The labor leader said any suggestion that members are responsible for recent mishaps was unfounded. In an effort to demonstrate what he said “firefighters are forced to try and work with on a daily basis,” he sent out a statement that included a picture of a parking sign jammed into an ambulance engine “as a makeshift heat shield.”
The fire department said that aluminum signs were put in engine compartments of some ambulances to fix problems with air conditioning. They are being removed, officials said. Neither ambulance that caught fire Tuesday had the signs.
The dispute, rooted in long-stalled labor talks, heightened in January when one-third of the firefighters on duty for New Year’s Eve called out sick, and a man suffering a heart attack died after a delay getting him to a hospital. The union denied claims by the city of orchestrating a sick-out.
A string of failures followed, including delays in getting help to an injured D.C. police officer and the breakdown of an ambulance transporting a man who had been shot by police. The city had to outsource ambulance service to Nationals games when air conditioning failed in dozens of vehicles during a heat wave. And the city routinely operates with a deficit of paramedics — a problem the union blames on unfilled vacancies and the city blames on unscheduled absences.
D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) has called on Ellerbe to resign, and the head of the public safety committee, Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who is running for mayor, said he would not keep the chief if elected. Last month, Wells’s committee shot down Ellerbe’s ambulance redeployment plan, which the chief said would improve response times.
Wells and Ellerbe sparred during a hearing in March over the quality of the department’s vehicles after a report by the D.C. inspector general found many vehicles in the reserve fleet were in disrepair.
The report also said investigators had heard allegations of sabotage dating to 2011 that included slashing of tires, tampering with air conditioners and intentionally driving ambulances in low gear to burn out transmissions in a dozen vehicles, which cost the city $45,000 in repairs.
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.