It’s been a rocky few months over at D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services. The firefighters’ union and new chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe have been at odds over a range of issues, including a ban on wearing “DCFD” clothing while on duty and a proposed change from 24-hour to 12-hour work shifts.

The tensions, though, go a lot deeper than that, and you could do a whole lot worse than read Alan Suderman’s Loose Lips column this week for a primer on the conflict.

Ellerbe appeared on WAMU-FM’s Politics Hour today and addressed the controversy, including the thorniest issue of all — the role of race in the ongoing conflict.

As the Washington Times first reported this week, department spokesman Lon Walls accused some firefighters of engaging in a “racist act” by walking out of Ellerbe’s state-of-the-department speech last month. Walls was suspended Wednesday.

“I think we have to be very careful when it comes to the issue of race, and that’s why Lon was placed on administrative leave, just to give us all time to breathe a minute,” Ellerbe said. “We never want to interject race in an area or an environment where you already have some perceived challenged or even hostilities. That just exacerbated the problem.”

Walls, he continued, “was speaking on his own personal account, but still he is a government official at this point. ... We have to have a higher standard for the way we respond personally and professionally.”

Ellerbe said he’s dealing with the uproar by going about his business, making sure the fires get fought and his men get paid what they’re due.

He also pushed back on a suggestion, leveled by his critics via Suderman’s piece, that the bucket truck designated to save President Obama and family is, in the words of one driver, an unreliable “piece of crap.”

“I did talk to one of the Secret Service agents,” Ellerbe said. “Rest assured that if the First Family is ever in any type of situation like that, we have equipment that will get them out of the White House if necessary.”