The Post’s View

D.C. fire department’s much needed reform still is stalled

D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe’s tenure has been marked by a steady string of controversies. There’s no question that the chief has made missteps and likely can’t afford to make many more. But the fundamental cause for the department’s turmoil can be traced to deep-seated resistance to change. Public safety is at issue, so city officials must not allow simple adherence to the status quo to block needed reform in how the department operates.

Mr. Ellerbe took over the department in 2011, promising to bring “transformational” leadership to a department historically hard to manage because of rocky labor relations and lingering, if unspoken, racial divisions. Early on, Mr. Ellerbe encountered troubles and, of late, problems have seemed to mount as the chief finds himself in what The Post’s Peter Hermann called a “pitched battle” with the union for control of the direction of the department. Questions about response times, equipment readiness and arson closure rates — and allegations of work sabotage by rank-and-file employees — raise issues that must be examined.

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It is clear that Mr. Ellerbe has not done himself any favors by picking petty fights with the union or in providing faulty information to the D.C. Council. But any shortcomings of Mr. Ellerbe shouldn’t detract from the acuity of his message that the department has to change to better meet the city’s needs — and that providing emergency medical care, not fighting fires, is increasingly the department’s mission. He wants to retool the department so that shifts are shorter but more frequent, which would save on personnel costs, and so that apparatus is deployed based on peak needs. The union has called for more hires, resources and training.

Mr. Ellerbe’s proposals — notably to shorten the 24-hour shift that firefighters now work — have run into fierce opposition from the firefighters union, whose members like the benefits of a work schedule that requires just eight or nine workdays a month. Research has shown that mistakes and underperformance can result from sleep deprivation caused by long hours and shift work. There is also the question, recently raised by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), of whether emergency preparedness is weakened if first-responders live far away from the District.

The proposal to shorten shifts is tied up in the impasse over a contract with the firefighters union. The plan to redeploy paramedic units so that more ambulances will be available at peak hours will be the subject of a hearing by the council’s public safety committee on May 17. The fact that the chief has to get council permission for his redeployment of personnel and equipment, a move he wanted to make last year, is indicative of the difficulty he — or any other chief, for that matter — faces in modernizing this department.

 
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