D.C. fire chief draws criticism from predecessor

The District’s former fire chief this week sharply criticized his successor, Kenneth B. Ellerbe, saying that the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department has been “greatly compromised” under his leadership.

Dennis L. Rubin, who left the department the day Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) took office in 2011 and now works as a firefighting consultant, first made his critical comments in a column published Wednesday on the Web site of Fire Engineering, a prominent industry magazine. He expanded on them in an interview Friday with The Washington Post.

(Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post) - D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe is seen earlier this year at the Wilson Building in Washington.

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In the column, Rubin, without naming Ellerbe, says his successor made “rapid and poorly planned changes” and “simply made up” information about department operations to place himself in a positive light.

“It’s truly disgusting, most importantly, to watch the public’s trust erode,” Rubin said in the interview.

Keith St. Clair, a city spokesman, said Ellerbe had no comment on Rubin’s criticisms. “He’s got no response to him and has no plans to respond to any of his comments in the future,” St. Clair said.

Rubin’s recent comments are his first widely publicized remarks on the current state of the department. They come amid an avalanche of criticism from D.C. Council members and the unions representing firefighters and paramedics aimed at Ellerbe’s management — particularly as it relates to paramedic staffing and fleet management.

On Tuesday, two ambulances caught fire, and the department acknowledged that four other ambulances had been put on the street after makeshift repairs that involved wedging street signs under their hoods.

In previous statements, Ellerbe said the department has focused on improving fleet maintenance and expects to deploy 30 new ambulances in the coming months. He has blamed a paramedic shortage on a departmental policy demanding new paramedics also be trained as firefighters, saying few are willing to go into burning buildings.

But over the past two months, that policy has been relaxed. Fire officials say Ellerbe’s move to hire “single-role” paramedics, reported Thursday by The Washington Times, has already had benefits: 22 have been hired and are set to hit the streets at the end of the month — a roughly 10 percent boost to the paramedic corps.

Rubin said he felt compelled to speak out because he was being blamed by Ellerbe and other city officials for the fire department’s woes. “It’s a string of never-ending direct and indirect comments,” he said.

In March 2012, for example, WRC-TV reported on hundreds of fire-resistant polo shirts that were sitting unused in a warehouse. Ellerbe attributed the issue, in part, to “trickery in terms of one administration to another.” More recently, a department statement issued for a WUSA-TV report said the department’s efforts to improve the fleet had gone “far beyond what Dennis Rubin did” as chief.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), a longtime critic of department management, questioned Rubin’s credibility. “I don’t think he’s the best commentator given the state of the department when he left,” said Mendelson, who clashed with Rubin during his time as chairman of the council’s public safety committee.

“People forget, but spending was out of control,” Mendelson said. “The agedness of the fleet, which we are seeing now, is something that had already started then. There was a high degree of morale problems.”

Edward C. Smith, president of the firefighter union, was not a labor leader when Rubin was chief, but he said he recalled the union having difficulties with Rubin as well.

Still, Smith said the former chief’s criticism was the latest development that shows the department’s problems go far beyond labor disputes. He cited the D.C. Council’s July rebuke of Ellerbe’s request to alter ambulance deployments, comments by Mendelson calling the department an “embarrassment,” and an inspector general’s report on the poor state of the fleet.

“It’s not labor vs. management,” Smith said. “It’s a public safety crisis.”

In the interview, Rubin defended his job performance and the state in which he left the department, making note of a lengthy transition plan he prepared in October 2010 that identified paramedic training, equipment procurement and fleet reliability as priorities.

“I’m positive that I worked my hardest to set him up for success,” he said.

In his column, Rubin accused Ellerbe of having a “personal vendetta” and accused him of sending a threatening Internet message in 2010, amid the heated Democratic primary campaign between incumbent Adrian M. Fenty and Gray.

Asked about the claim, Rubin provided a photograph of what appeared to be text messages displayed on a BlackBerry. It showed two messages sent by a person identified as “KE” on Aug. 25, 2010. “I want Rubin’s job,” reads the first message. The second came 64 seconds later: “And his head on a stick!”

Rubin said he believed that the text message was sent to Chris Sullivan, a firefighter who had been fired in 2009 after being accused of insubordination and other charges. Sullivan challenged his firing in federal court and won reinstatement in 2011.

Sullivan, reached Friday, confirmed that Ellerbe sent the text messages to him. He said he had posted the photograph to the Watch Desk, an online forum for first responders, where Rubin or his associates would have had access.

St. Clair acknowledged that Ellerbe sent the message. It was “part of a private conversation” and Ellerbe regretted sending it, St. Clair said. “Everyone knows Ellerbe and Rubin weren’t exactly friends,” he said.

Peter Hermann contributed to this report.

 
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