August 22, 2013

LISTEN TO D.C. firefighters, and the spectacle of a city ambulance marooned at the White House because it had no gas to accompany the presidential motorcade was because of faulty equipment. Listen to administration officials, and the fault lies with inattentive employees. The only thing clear is that the unrelenting bickering between labor and management is fast undermining public confidence in the critical but embattled department.

“An embarrassment to the city” was the description of D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) in observing that a lot of District residents are worried about a “meltdown” in critical fire and emergency medical services. In addition to last week’s incident, in which the ambulance was stranded on the South Lawn of the White House, two other ambulances caught fire, leading to revelations of makeshift repairs. The request (reasonable to our mind) by Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul A. Quander Jr. for outside police review of the fires brought a rebuke from the president of the firefighters union, who felt his members were being unfairly blamed.

Such acrimony has unfortunately become the hallmark of dealings between union and management, diverting time and resources that would be better spent on working to improve the department. This “poisonous relationship,” as The Post’s Peter Hermann characterized it, has been marked by stalled contract talks, large numbers of firefighters calling in sick on New Year’s Eve, with tragic consequences, and allegations of equipment sabotage. The union has made no secret of its disregard for Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe, using every opportunity to call attention to what it sees as his mismanagement and pushing for his removal.

Chief Ellerbe, we’ve noted before, has made some missteps, but he’s on exactly the right track in wanting to bring new accountability to a department mired in the practices and traditions of the past. Indeed, the problem with the department is not that there’s been too much change but that Chief Ellerbe has been hamstrung — by a restrictive union contract and intrusive council policies — from retooling it so that the needs of the public, rather than the wishes of the rank and file, are the main priority.

The main mission of the department is no longer simply fighting fires but also providing emergency medical services in a way that most efficiently serves the public. So while it may be in the interest of firefighters to have a schedule that requires just eight or nine workdays a month and allows them to have second jobs far from the District, that’s not in the best interests of the public that has to pick up the tab. And while it may to be to the advantage of the union that the department hire only paramedics who are firefighters, it makes sense for the city to meet its demand for paramedics by hiring people whose main role is to provide these critically needed emergency medical services.

Chief Ellerbe has dared to challenge the status quo on these and other issues, and that’s why he’s been made a target. If he were to be forced from office — an effort that troublingly is being enabled by some council members who should know better — prospects of reforming the department would be dealt a severe setback.