D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe listens to a graduate after the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department Graduation Ceremony for Paramedic Recruit Class 2013 22-R at the D.C. Fire and EMS Training Academy on Oct. 17, 2013. (Jared Soares/The Washington Post)

Despite a history of missteps, a cadet program designed to groom young firefighters fresh out of D.C. high schools has become a cornerstone of Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe’s tumultuous tenure.

The program was scrapped in 2008 by Ellerbe’s predecessor because of concerns about the training and character of those who have come through the cadet academy, including one who was later convicted of a double murder, one accused of shooting at other cadets and two who died of gunshot wounds.

Ellerbe resurrected the program in 2011 and has used it as the primary way to hire new firefighters in the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.

The recent death of Medric Cecil Mills Jr., a 77-year-old man who collapsed across the street from a firehouse, has brought new scrutiny to the program and to a department that has been racked by equipment problems, union conflicts and constant criticism from the D.C. Council.

Remy Jones, a cadet who graduated from the academy just two months prior, was on duty Jan. 25 at the Engine 26 firehouse in Northeast Washington when Mills was stricken with a heart attack. Onlookers ran to the firehouse, where Jones was reportedly at the door, and begged for help.

What happened next is unclear. Jones called his supervisor, according to multiple accounts, but he did not take his radio and run to assist the fallen man, which firefighters said should be a knee-jerk reaction. Although Jones, a 2012 high school graduate, was still in his probationary period, he was allowed and expected to perform the life-saving duties of a firefighter.

No one from the firehouse, where Jones, his supervisor and three others were on duty, ran to Mills’s aid. The lack of immediate response would astonish and outrage Mills’s family. Some minutes later, an ambulance was flagged down by a police officer at the scene, but Mills died that afternoon at a hospital. Fire officials have not released the official response times.

“He was in a tough position. He’s a new member. That’s all I can say,” Ellerbe said in a recent interview about Jones’s actions that day. Ellerbe added in a separate interview, “I can’t say anything about Engine 26.”

Jones’s lieutenant, Kellene Davis, and another firefighter have been placed on administrative leave, while Jones has been transferred to another firehouse. Davis subsequently submitted her retirement papers. None responded to repeated requests for comment.

Jones’s time at the academy was troubled, including documentation of a poor attitude and disrespect for fellow cadets and supervisors, according to reports obtained by The Washington Post that detailed his behavior in early October.

“These young folks come into a paramilitary-style organization,” Ellerbe said in an interview Friday. “It’s not uncommon for them to have a period of adjustment. They are coming from a variety of backgrounds.”

In November, Jones graduated with Cadet Class 15, having met the requirements to become a D.C. firefighter. He became one of the more than 350 fresh high school graduates who have gone through the program since 1986.

“While you have a lot of the success stories on the job, you also have had a lot of problems,” said retired Capt. Walter C. Jernigan III, who spent several years recruiting cadets for the department and is a supporter of the program.

Six years ago, then-Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin put a stop to the cadet program, writing in his 2013 book, “D.C. Fire,” that it had been doomed by years of shoddy vetting of candidates, poor training and questionable oversight. He warned that some cadets were “ticking time bombs” in the department and did not have the integrity to serve in the District.

Under Ellerbe, funding for the revived program has reached nearly $2 million for the 2013-14 cadet classes.

The program, which usually takes nearly a year to complete, accepts D.C. residents ages 17 to 21 who have graduated from a city public, charter or parochial school, or earned a general equivalency diploma, and maintained a 2.0 grade-point average. Classes of roughly 25 cadets learn firefighting skills and are trained as emergency medical technicians.

The program has fed racial divisions in the roughly 2,000-member department, which includes firefighters, paramedics and civilian employees. Some of the white rank and file view the cadet initiative as a racially exclusive program for black youths intended to shift the demographics of the department. In the history of the program, only a handful of cadets have not been African American.

Critics say there has been a long-standing trend of setting lower standards for cadets compared with general recruits, who can be non-D.C. residents and are required to take an entrance exam to join the department.

Department guidelines state that if a cadet is convicted of a felony while at the academy, he or she would receive only a written reprimand, according to a bulletin revised last year. If a general recruit faced a felony charge at the academy, he or she would be fired if an internal investigation confirmed the charges, according to a 2012 bulletin. A cadet would be fired only upon a second felony conviction.

Ellerbe said he was unaware of the discrepancies and would dismiss anyone with a felony conviction.

The department has not had an entrance exam open to the public since 2008, and the cadet program has become one of the few ways to become a firefighter in the District.

“The cadet program in itself is not a bad thing,” Jernigan said. “I think the bone of contention with the cadet program right now is there is no balance. There is no entrance exam.”

Defenders of the program say there is no difference in quality between the general recruit classes and the cadet classes.

“Everyone has to go through the same program,” said Mark Wynn, a deputy chief of the fire prevention division who is the department’s highest-ranking former cadet and spent several years at the academy training new hires.

Wynn, along with other supporters of the cadet program, says the initiative is a much-needed means of providing career paths for D.C. youths within the department, which does not have a teen volunteer program like many suburban departments.

“It’s been proven over time that the cadet program has been successful,” said Wynn, 44, who entered Cadet Class 2 in 1987.

Critics from the start

At the inception of the cadet program in 1986, under Fire Chief Theodore Coleman, racial tension in the department was palpable. The department, whose makeup was about 40 percent black and 60 percent white, was just 15 years removed from the enforced end of the firehouse tradition of having separate bunks and cooking utensils for black and white firefighters.

A controversial affirmative-action policy promoted minority officers up the ranks in the mid-1980s, and soon the residency requirement for city employees, including firefighters, would be rolled back. The new cadet program was part of a movement to keep hiring D.C. residents and to change the fire department’s demographics to better mirror the District’s majority-black population.

“I remember the thrust being for affirmative action and for the under­served part of the city,” said Adrian H. Thompson, who joined the fire department in 1970 and served as fire chief from 2002 to 2006.

From the start, there were critics of the selection process. One firefighter told a local news crew in 1987 that the cadet program was discriminatory because it recruited only from D.C. public high schools.

At the time, the cadet program was for District students who attended school for part of the day and then spent the afternoon in cadet training. They needed a C average to apply.

There were some early public victories for the program. In 1989, two cadets were dubbed heroes in the local newspapers after they saved two children who jumped from a window during a house fire.

Just a few months later, the program had its first of many missteps. A 19-year-old cadet, Jesse Sparks, was arrested on the job and booked on a first-degree murder charge in a shooting outside RSVP, a Southwest nightclub. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and a concealed deadly weapons charge and was sentenced to serve five to 15 years in prison.

Many early graduates of the cadet program went on to have long careers in the department, including one current deputy chief, Wynn, and several battalion chiefs.

John Clay, a Class 1 graduate, keeps a photo of his class from 1986, wearing their uniforms and helmets and covered in grit after a fire drill.

“We were like brothers,” said Clay, who works as a fire inspector. “We were the first class. We had to make it. We wanted to start a good legacy.”

In the mid-1990s, city funding for the program ran dry.

The program restarted in 2001, under Fire Chief Ronnie Few, using new federal funds from the Youth Opportunity Act, a grant that aims to help disadvantaged youths.

The D.C. Department of Employment Services helped select the cadets and gave priority to those in “empowerment zones,” federally designated census tracts experiencing urban distress. Youths who met the income-eligibility guidelines of the Workforce Investment Act were also given priority, according to a department spokeswoman.

“It was done totally wrong,” said Jernigan, the former recruiting captain. “The problem was this: The way it was written, it was for at-risk youth. It was a social program. The mind-set was . . . ‘We’re trying to help some people get a leg up.’ ”

That decision would lead to the most-troubled classes in the history of the cadet program.

‘The infamous’ Class 8

The first class of the revived program was Cadet Class 8. Of the 16 cadets, only five remain in the department.

A trio of Class 8 cadets were involved in a shooting early New Year’s Day in 2002, just six months before they were to graduate. Michael McKnight was charged with assault with intent to kill after he was accused of shooting at a car carrying two fellow cadets. One was wounded. McKnight was later tried and acquitted.

McKnight said he was allowed to remain in the academy with the charges pending. But he chose to leave, he said, because he didn’t want to face an internal discipline board.

“It’s pretty wild,” McKnight, 33, said in a recent phone interview. “A bunch of us had a great opportunity, and it all turned around.”

The cadet who dodged the bullets that night, Marcus Holness, survived a subsequent stabbing in the spring but died in a shooting the month of his class’s graduation. The 19-year-old was shot in the head outside Club Abyss nightclub in Southwest Washington. He was wearing his fire department shorts and had a loaded assault rifle in his car, according to news reports at the time.

Four years later, under Thompson, the cadet program was once again put on hiatus, this time after D.C. Council members questioned the residency of some cadets.

“It did appear to be that there were people who were doing various things to circumvent the process,” said Theresa Cusick, the department’s general counsel at the time. “The documentation of income was very scant. A lot of people got in who weren’t very poor. I don’t know why that happened, but that’s the way it happened.”

The program was reinstated later that year. Thompson began accepting some separate city funding that allowed other young high school graduates, not just those who met the federal grant requirements, to join the program.

“If that’s what it takes to get people on a level playing field, let’s do it,” he said in a recent interview. “But if it doesn’t work, you ask what do we do to make it better? What do we do to fix it?”

In 2007, Rubin, who had been chief for just a few months, went to the hospital after learning that a firefighter had been shot. Michael Holmone, 25, died while Rubin was there. Upon delivering the news to the family, Rubin was shocked to learn from Holmone’s mother that her son had been shot before.

He was the cadet wounded in the New Year’s Day shooting in 2002.

That night, Rubin would later write, he learned about “the infamous” Cadet Class 8.

Another Class 8 cadet, Adam Neal, was convicted in 2008 of fatally stabbing two women in their 70s in a robbery in a flower shop in Suitland, Md. He was sentenced to two life terms, plus 40 years, in prison.

Rubin ended the program with Cadet Class 13 in 2008, refusing the funds that went along with it.

It was a decision that was very upsetting to Jernigan, the recruiting captain.

“Instead of him taking the effort to clean it up and make it right, they just got rid of it,” Jernigan said.

A year after the program was canceled, D’Ante Paire, from Cadet Class 11 in 2005, shot and wounded his former girlfriend, also a D.C. firefighter, and her parents, before killing himself.

Rebirth of the program

When Ellerbe brought back the program in 2011, Jernigan said they were both adamant that “they do it right” this time around. There would be no requirements for cadets to come from certain census tracts or socio­economic classes.

The intention was to hark back to the original, more successful, cadet program that had produced some of the department’s top officers.

“I’m always looking forward,” Ellerbe said. “We like to know our history. The program we developed is a good one. It gives them an opportunity to have an honorable career.”

Under Ellerbe’s plan, $1.2 million has been earmarked in adult training funds, all local dollars, from the Department of Employment Services to cover 34 of 56 cadets in 2013-14. The other 22 cadets were funded through the fire department’s budget.

Jernigan said he believed a key to the renewed program’s success would be to more fully vet all potential hires — cadets and recruits. He said he repeatedly suggested outsourcing the process to a trained investigator in the D.C. police department.

“People don’t care until something goes wrong,” Jernigan said. “I’ve been saying this for the last five years . . . that the backgrounds need to be better done and it needs to be done by the police department.”

Ellerbe said the fire department does do thorough background screening of new hires.

“Those incidents may have occurred prior to this program,” he said, referring to crimes involving cadets in previous classes. “We do a background check.”

Since the fall, at least 10 employees have been arrested, including at least four with ties to the cadet program. Keith Chung, a graduate of Cadet Class 13, was arrested in Prince George’s County late last year. He was charged with possession of a handgun in a car and altering a gun’s serial number.

Chung denies the charges, which are pending. His arrest is the latest event in a string of problems he has had since graduating from his cadet class in 2008.

“I have had some recent legal actions that have put a bad light on the cadet program. I can acknowledge that,” Chung, 26, said in a phone interview. “A lot of people who come out of the cadet program are young men and young women. People make mistakes. You’re learning. I don’t think that should define anyone.”

A battalion chief wrote in December 2012 that Chung has had a “dismal work record,” including suspensions for driving with an expired driver’s permit, failing to report his status while transporting a patient, and abusing the use of sick and annual leave, according to internal documents obtained by The Post.

Chung, who described himself as a model employee, remains on enforced leave while the department completes an internal investigation.

The arrest trend, Ellerbe wrote in an internal memo last month, was “very disturbing.”

He issued a department-wide order instructing all employees to report within 10 days any crimes they had committed. After the period passed, Ellerbe said, the department would conduct thorough criminal background checks on all employees.

Remy Jones’s problems did not involve a background check but rather his behavior at the academy.

In October, the whole cadet class had to run up and down a six-story tower because Jones had misbehaved, according to a report obtained by The Post.

The next week, on Oct. 7, he was caught locking a fellow cadet outside in the rain during a routine cleanup at the sprawling training academy in Southwest Washington across the Anacostia River.

A report described his actions as insubordination and a violation of standards of behavior.

The report mentioned that his personnel file shows no prior disciplinary issues but stated that he had been counseled before on his poor attitude and misbehavior.

Jones was required to type up an explanation for the cleanup incident. He took responsibility for his conduct and promised to improve.

Both supervisors recommended a written reprimand, but none was given.

When asked about the incident, Ellerbe said that he had checked with the leader of the cadet program and confirmed that Jones never received a reprimand.

“Our firefighters all make mistakes in the beginning because it’s new,” Ellerbe said. “That’s why we put them through different drills.”

On Thursday, family members of Cecil Mills, flanked by attorneys from the Cochran Law Firm, stood across the street from Engine 26 for a news conference and demanded answers from city officials.

“We want someone to take the blame for this tragedy and for those responsible to be held accountable,” said Medric Mills III, the son of Cecil Mills.

Peter Hermann contributed to this report.