The hearing at the John A. Wilson Building came as pressure on a variety of fronts weighs on Ellerbe. He is trying to push through proposals to change firefighters’ work schedules and redeploy ambulances to improve the response at times of high call volume. The changes, he says, would ease the crunch and prevent the problems that occurred this month.
The union, which voted no confidence in Ellerbe this week, opposes the changes, saying the department needs to hire more people and buy more equipment. The fight comes at a time when the nation’s capital attracts 1 .5 million tourists a year, takes in a half-million commuters a day and has a population that grew by about 13,000 people last year.
Types of first responders
Both the union and the fire chief agree that changes are needed to keep up with the growing demand for services. The question is how. Edward C. Smith, the union president, called the department’s fleet “virtually nonexistent,” and he said, “Quite frankly, the department is in disarray.”
Wells said after the hearing that he would “reserve judgement” on Ellerbe, but it was clear from the hearing that the fire department is at a watershed moment. In one particularly testy exchange, Mendelson asked Ellerbe why so many issues were surfacing now. When the chief responded that it sometimes takes a tragedy to prompt change, an angry Mendelson shot back: “Didn’t that incident occur Jan. 6, 2006?”
Mendelson was referring to the death of retired New York Times reporter and editor David E. Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum died after emergency personnel mistook injuries he suffered in a mugging as resulting from drunkenness and labeled the incident a low-priority call. The case led to wholesale reforms that are still being implemented and remains the benchmark for judging the department’s performance.
“I think that seven years after Rosenbaum, we would be further along,” Mendelson said. “I feel that as far as the public is concerned, we’re back to where we were then.”
Further trouble came for Ellerbe when the local firefighters union, Local 36, revealed that numbers the chief’s office had given Wells at a February oversight hearing on the reserve fleet were inaccurate. Many vehicles listed as available for emergencies had in fact been decommissioned; one was in a scrap yard in Wisconsin.
That same week, the D.C. inspector general released a report showing that even more vehicles were unavailable. That report had been delivered to the fire department the day before the February hearing conducted by Wells.
On Thursday, Ellerbe conceded that he had used faulty data for at least a year to assess what his department needed and to put together his budgets. The chief insisted that his most recent capital request — $24 million over three years, including money to buy vehicles — did not need to be changed, and Wells asked him several times whether he was “managing off false data.”