Tommy Wells calls for resignations of deputy mayor, fire chief after high-profile hearing

A D.C. Council member and mayoral candidate heightened his criticism of Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s public safety team Tuesday, calling for the resignations of two high-ranking officials.

In a letter to Gray, Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chairman of the council’s public safety committee, demanded the dismissal of Paul A. Quander Jr., the deputy mayor for public safety, and Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe. Wells said he was “stunned to learn” at a hearing Monday that there is no plan to address “systemic mismanagement” in the city’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.

“From burning ambulances, uncertified fire trucks, and no procurement plan to adequately equip our fire and emergency personnel, to a shortage of paramedics, delayed response to emergencies, and poor training and management, the Department has enormous and urgent challenges to overcome,” Wells wrote.

The call comes five weeks before the mayoral primary, in which Wells is challenging Gray for the Democratic nomination. It also came one day after Quander took the lead role testifying at a council hearing called by Wells on the failure of firefighters last month to help a dying man outside a fire station.

Wells continually pressed Quander and Ellerbe, who was sitting at the deputy mayor’s side, on whether myriad problems involving response times, paramedic shortages and fleet availability are because of systemic failures reaching to the top of the department.

Quander repeatedly pushed back, saying the problem in the most recent fire station case was because of a breakdown in “moral character” of the firefighters involved and had nothing to do with “policy and procedure.”

The mayor’s office has continually backed Ellerbe, who in an interview Monday night said he was not surprised at the anger expressed by Wells and the family of Medric Cecil Mills Jr., the 77-year-old who died after collapsing across the street from the firehouse in January.

Ellerbe said he is meeting resistance trying to “change the culture” of the department to reflect a merger of fire suppression and medical calls. At the hearing, Quander disagreed with Wells on whether substantial changes are needed.

In the letter, Wells said “strong leadership, sound management and a new culture of excellence” are needed. “Blaming racial divisions, union membership, or other perceived motivations for the Department’s dysfunction must end,” he wrote.

Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Gray, placed Wells’s letter within the context of the mayoral campaign, calling it a “shameless and idiotic stunt.”

He noted that Wells opposed a plan developed by Ellerbe to redeploy ambulances to better respond to high volumes of calls during certain parts of the day. “At best, he’s a hypocrite,” Ribeiro said of Wells.

Jack Pfeiffer, a spokesman for Wells, said it was troubling that the mayor’s office would respond by citing political motivations rather than addressing the issues in the department. “The fact the mayor and his staff are failing to take the most pressing matters of government seriously is a reason why we are seeing these failures,” he said.

Wells has gradually increased his criticism of the fire department management as the campaign has progressed.

At recent appearances, he has said he would replace Ellerbe if elected mayor but until Tuesday had not called for his immediate departure. Two other council members, Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and David Grosso (I-At Large), have previously called for Ellerbe’s dismissal.

Among the other leading Democratic mayoral candidates, council member Jack Evans (Ward 2) has said he would replace Ellerbe, while colleagues Muriel Bowser (Ward 4) and Vincent B. Orange (At Large) and restaurateur Andy Shallal have been more circumspect.

The fire department has come squarely into the campaign spotlight since Mills’s death Jan. 25.

Mills collapsed in a parking lot across from the firehouse in the 1300 block of Rhode Island Avenue NE. Bystanders pounded on the station’s door but were told by a newly hired firefighter that they would have to call 911 before anyone could respond.

Dispatchers ended up sending an ambulance to the wrong address, compounding delays. Help only came when a D.C. police officer flagged down a passing ambulance. A report issued last week by Quander faulted five firefighters with Truck Company 15 and four emergency dispatchers. Discipline was recommended for all nine employees.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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