Wells also asked whether Ellerbe’s office had been truthful when reporting the state of fleet readiness last month, and he warned the chief, “For any information coming forward, you have to put your job behind it.”
The hearing quickly became an inquiry into the chief’s performance, and Wells said, “There’s not much slack.”
Ellerbe, who spent 21
2 hours defending his leadership but repeatedly faltered in his answers, unable to state unequivocally that he had enough paramedics or even whether he had visited the 911 center recently. He often turned for help to a deputy mayor who sat beside him at the witness table, once drawing an objection from Wells, who demanded that the chief, not his boss, speak up.
The chief apologized to District residents for recent missteps, but he pushed responsibility onto rank-and-file firefighters. He blamed 100 firefighters who called in sick Jan. 1 for the slow response to a man who suffered a fatal heart attack. He blamed crews that improperly ended their shifts early for the department’s failure to help a D.C. police officer hit by a car. (The officer was transported by an ambulance from Prince George’s County).
Ellerbe said the department had experienced an unfortunate confluence of isolated incidents, not the systemic failures of leadership suggested by Wells and the council chairman, Phil Mendelson (D). He was adamant that he is leading the department in the right direction, insisting, for instance, “In my opinion, our fleet remains in an acceptable state of readiness.”
Mendelson and Wells said the problems point to broader issues of mismanagement. Frustration surfaced when Wells asked Ellerbe, “Is it an issue that you don’t have enough paramedics?”
Ellerbe responded, “We have an issue with paramedic availability.”
To which Wells responded, “Why do you qualify your answers?”
Mendelson expressed surprise that it was only through inquiries by the union and the D.C. inspector general that Ellerbe learned that fire engines in the reserve fleet — equipment he thought could be called up in an emergency — had been decommissioned, with some sold for scrap. Ellerbe blamed a deputy chief and old data, which was submitted to the council committee, but he conceded that he had relied on the faulty information for a year in assessing inventory and preparing budget requests. He said he will hire a civilian to oversee the fleet.
“I just don’t know how the chief of the fire department doesn’t know how many vehicles he has available,” Mendelson said. He noted that Ellerbe has 411 vehicles to keep track of, compared with the 4,000 the police department manages.