Washington Post reporter Amy Brittain sat down with Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe on Friday to discuss wide-ranging issues concerning the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. Their conversation previews some of the subjects that will most likely arise at a lengthy oversight hearing in front of the D.C. Council’s public safety committee on March 7.
Ellerbe has faced a variety of criticism, including calls for his resignation after the death of Medric Cecil Mills Jr., who collapsed on Jan. 25 in a Northeast Washington shopping center parking lot and did not received help from firefighters nearby at Engine 26.
Additionally, Ellerbe has been at the center of an internal war within his own department, as some of the rank and file claim he has created a culture of fear.
Here are key excerpts from their conversation. Brittain’s questions are in boldface type. Ellerbe’s answers are below in regular type.
This is a wide-ranging fire department story about the history of your three years here. And you made a comment on Monday during the [D.C. public safety committee] hearing that kind of struck me and I wanted to know more about the thoughts behind the comment. You said, “Council member Wells, I’ve spent three years talking about the culture of this department.” What did you mean by that comment?
What I meant is — over the past 5 or 10 years, we have seemed to go into somewhat of a professional decline in terms of expectations. Our employees are hired, and they have a great deal of respect for the tradition, the honor that goes along with the job. And I don’t know if they clearly understand that that honor and tradition is something that you have to uphold. We don’t just bestow upon you the hero or the honor title of firefighter. The folks who built this industry did great things every day. We can’t just come in now and rest on their laurels. We have to continue that — that behavior, we have to continue that idea of service. When we have things that happen that are contrary to honor and dignity of this public safety environment, somebody has got to do something about this. I came up old school. And I’m going to show you something, but it has nothing to do with this report, and I have never done this before. [rolled up sleeves] You see this scar?
You see this scar?
These are all scars. And these scars on my elbows come from crawling down burning corridors looking for kids. This is because a piece of glass pierced my arm, and I didn’t even know. It fell three stories down, and a shattered window went straight through my coat and right through my arm. This is a piece of equipment that fell on my hand and cut my hand to the point where I could see the tendon in my hand move. This is the only thing I went to the hospital for.
When did those injuries happen?
During my career as a firefighter, from 1982 through 1995. Now in the winter, my face will chap on this side [pointing to the right side] because I had the skin burned off of it. Second-degree burn, nothing major, but when you wipe a second-degree burn, the skin will come off.
Do you still have to treat it?
No. I have good skin. My mama had really good skin. But that was a time when the old school firefighters had a tin of salve that they kept in their lockers. At the end of these events, you’d go into the locker room, you’d rub that salve on and you’d go on to the next incident if it came up. Now, and I’m not trying to disparage our younger employees, but we can have people off for all sorts of stuff. ‘I twisted my ankle, I’m off for a month.’ Those kinds of things. And I understand that. But the honor, the duty, the service, all of those things require sacrifice. And we don’t seem to have a culture of dedicated sacrifice.We don’t seem to have a culture of camaraderie where you don’t throw your friends under the bus to make a point against the fire chief. We don’t seem to have a shop where you protect your buddy instead of exposing him to embarrass the fire chief. Because I’m not going to be embarrassed. I’m not going to be intimidated. I’m not going to be dissuaded. I know what we have to do in terms of getting this organization moving in the right direction. There is no quit in me, at all. The whole idea seems to be if we embarrass the department and the chief enough then he’ll quit. No. We will go to each and every incident where folks have failed to do their job and hold people accountable. That is what this whole thing is about right now, accountability. If I am going to be accountable for every employee, then I should have the authority to hold every employee accountable.
Now this whole culture, you said, that you’ve witnessed . . . it sounds like you’ve been a little bit bothered, even disturbed by it.
Sometimes I am.
Is that something that you saw immediately when you took over in 2011, or did it intensify over the years?
Well, it’s something that I saw before 2011. I was here for 27 years. I watched some things happen, in terms of extending our training period from one year to 18 months, which is a direct result of employees working a shift where they come to work once every four days. There is not enough contact with the leaders in the fire station, there is not enough contact with their comrades, there is not enough contact with management. If you’re working once every four days, or 96 days a year, for full-time pay, how dedicated are you, really? All I’ve asked them to do is adjust the work schedule, where we have more contact with each other, where we can do more training without overtime, where we can reposition some of our employees to provide better emergency medical care and services, where we can staff more ambulances and increase our ability to respond to every medical call. But there’s so much resistance because people have become accustomed to a work schedule that really is not beneficial to the citizens of the District of Columbia.
[Recently, an arbitrator released a report that recommended a retroactive pay raise for D.C. firefighters. The report detailed concerns about a potential shift change, and it guaranteed that firefighters would be paid overtime if they worked over a certain number of hours a week. The union touted the report as a victory against the move for a shift change.]
The arbitrator’s report . . . have you been through this all, or did the [general counsel] brief you on it?
I read it. I don’t think that we adequately put our case before the arbitrator, obviously. The arbitrator has ruled, and unlike our counterparts, I don’t know if we’re going to appeal that or not. I know that the Public Employee Relations Board said that we do have the authority to change our work schedule, and that’s why the arbitrator put an asterisk, that’s back before PERB because the labor organization has appealed the PERB’s decision that we can change the work schedule. I believe that shows how intent they are on resisting that change.
You’ve been talking since you’re blue in the face about this issue since you came in. It was one of the recommendations of the Rosenbaum task force report that employees work shorter shifts. Is that the motivation for why you wanted this?
That is the majority of the motivation, but there is also the recognition that 80 percent of what we do is emergency medical work. The medical field basically requires their employees to work shorter hours. They don’t let them work 24 hours. There was a time when a resident worked 72 straight hours to become a doctor. You realize that that fatigue factor could have a negative impact on the outcome of patients. I would much prefer that our work schedule mirror the area where we work the most, and give us an opportunity to provide better care and service to the folks of the city. That was another motivating factor. But training, reduction in overtime — when I say training, I mean contact hours with their immediate supervisor. If an employee works eight days a month, a 24 hour shift, and they sleep eight of those hours, or six of those hours, the reality is they are over going to work 16, maybe 14, of those hours. If they only spent two hours a day with their supervisor training and learning their job, that’s four contact hours a week. That’s not enough time to learn this type of job. In addition to that, they have calls that they go on. Having been a trainer of probationers as a company officer, I know how much time it takes to train somebody from a raw recruit to a seasoned veteran. It’s not easy. And there’s a whole lot of stuff that as a senior employee, or as a seasoned firefighter, you almost take for granted because it’s second nature how to respond to stuff. But for a new person coming in, it can be terrifying to go into their first real fire. It can be frightening to confront their first real medical emergency.
So where do you go from here? Is [the shift change] still an option on the table for you?
This is still an option, and we’re still negotiating to a degree. But my intention is to get a contract signed. They want to make it about money, it appears, and quite frankly, as much as I care about the finances of the city, if we get the changes that we’re looking for, that benefit the city, and it’s at a reasonable cost, that’s a fair contract. Right now the city is paying money for a shift that it doesn’t need, almost $34 million dollars. And my fight is not with the labor organization, as much as they want to make it. My focus is on providing better service to this city.
So is it fair to say that you are exploring an appeal of this?
No. That won’t be up to me. That will be up to the Office of Labor Relations and Collective Bargaining.
Ok. I’m just trying to understand. I want to break it down very clearly. In the aftermath of [the arbitrator’s] report . . . is it still possible for you to make the change that you want with this roadblock now?
Yes, this is separate and apart from PERB. And when PERB rules on the appeal, then that is the standard that we go by. This has to do more with compensation, but it doesn’t impact our ability to change the shifts.
So when will PERB . . . [make a decision]?
I don’t know. I wish they had ruled before this came out. I can’t control when PERB makes a decision. But when they rule, if they rule in our favor, there’s a good possibility we will move forward, and we’ll move forward based on what the arbitrator has compelled us to consider regarding compensation. I’m not here to fight. I’m here to make the necessary changes to improve the efficiency of service. That’s what I focus on every day. We have improved. Think about this. This fire department has never purchased 30 ambulances in 6 months. And I personally went to the ambulance dealer and I also met with the manufacturer on two occasions to tell him how important this is. We’ll have 10 brand new fire trucks delivered within the next 12 months, and those are engine companies. Six will come in between April and May.
Are they engines or ladder trucks?
Engines. And we have four ladder trucks on order too. Two of those will be in before the end of this calendar year, and two more at the beginning of the next calendar year. It takes over a year to construct these vehicles, so the idea that the Council compelled us to do this is not true. And I don’t even want them to say that. I know they will. They can’t take credit for this. The mayor gave us $24 million over three years. $24 million dollars to buy this apparatus. That’s a heck of a commitment. And he knows the importance of what we’re doing with our cadet program, our apparatus purchasing. First we went out and we exposed ourselves, quite frankly, in recognizing that the fleet was in disarray.
By having the independent [fleet] report?
We had an independent contractor come in and scathe our tail, really. But they gave us the direction we needed and the confirmation we were moving in the right direction, in terms of apparatus-purchasing, getting rid of a lot of junk that we had on board, hiring professional managers, moving us to a more automated vehicle replacement program and a vehicle maintenance program. They’ve never done that before.
We had to subject ourselves to the scrutiny of someone on the outside. We haven’t run from one of our challenges. We haven’t denied that we have challenges. We haven’t covered anything up. If we’ve made mistakes, we’ve said, “Look, we’ve made a mistake.” I testified before Council, “I made a mistake.” Mistakes will be made. When you have an organization this big that has been floundering for 15 to 20 years, out of the public eye, a lot of these problems didn’t just come up. But now this stuff is bubbling up every day. And rather than try to hide it and cover it up, we’re here, wide open.
You’ve mentioned the hiring of single-role paramedics. Back to the Rosenbaum report. It reinforced the idea that you would hire only dual-role employees. So why did you make that decision?
Well, we respect what happened to the Rosenbaum family. And I still keep in touch with Marcus Rosenbaum. Now he may not be in full agreement, but I think he’s starting to see the value in bringing in people who want to do emergency medical work. A lot of times what we’ve found is that people want to provide medical service but they don’t want to ride a fire truck. We’ve also found that some of our firefighters don’t want to do medical work. They think, for some reason, it’s not something they need to focus on, when in reality, it’s exactly what they need to be focused on. So we’re looking for the employees who want to do the work.
You’ve had a lot of paramedics leave, particularly firefighter-paramedics. The inspector general’s report that came out said that there were serious issues with retaining them. I’ve talked with a number of them. To say that they are disgruntled is putting it mildly. Does that concern you, and, if so, what will you do to fix it?
You know, for every person that leaves, there are three people waiting for a job. That’s the first thing. I know that they’re not disgruntled because of the pay, because they are some of the best paid firefighter-paramedics in the country. They can’t be disgruntled about the equipment because we’ve purchased millions of dollars in equipment for them to wear, for them to use, and for them to ride in. So, I don’t know them. So they can’t be disgruntled with me personally.
Well, the report said there were better pay and benefits elsewhere, that they were very upset about the holdovers [12-hour shifts tacked onto 24-hour work days] happening. I’ve know you’ve said that the holdovers are a condition of not being able to make the changes you want.
You support that?
I say those holdovers would not be occurring if we had shift changes. And those holdovers would not be occurring if folks came to work and that we could depend on them coming to work.
You and I have talked about the performance-on-duty injuries before. You mentioned them earlier in this conversation. The injuries have increased under your watch. What is the reason for that? Is it a measure of morale? Or is this an unsafe work environment?
The work environment is safe. When you look at the number of fires we’ve had, our fires have gone down significantly. I can’t tell you why a person is sick or why they go to the clinic. I just can’t say anything about. . . .
Do you think that the statistic is a sign of poor morale?
I can’t comment on that. I just don’t know. If the morale is low, every leadership book that I’ve read, the folks at the Pentagon that I’ve talked to, indicate morale starts at the first-line supervisor. If you have a sergeant or a lieutenant who’s out there managing the company who says the fire chief doesn’t know what he’s doing, that’s actually deleterious to management. And it can influence morale. The folks who influence morale are the folks they work with every day. Which is why we’re looking at a different structure in terms of our management.
I was out at Engine 10 the other night observing their soft-posting [in which firefighters in Northeast sit in their parked truck on the street to deter crime]. Several guys out there are adamant that they have no clue what they are doing, and they believe this is personal retaliation. What is the reason for this policy?
I grew up in Washington D.C. The area where I grew up had a swimming pool not far away. That swimming pool serviced three or four different neighborhoods. This soft-posting idea came up during a safe summer initiative when we realized where we put a fire truck at a place where different neighborhoods, where different factions came together, it would reduce incidents or confrontations. And it worked. That particular part of the city was experiencing a high volume of incidents that were contrary to the public good and to safe society. . . . To say that it’s personal? I don’t know those guys.
Well, several of them have been in disciplinary trouble. There is a feeling that Engine 10 used to be a desirable place to work and now they are feeling significant pain under your tenure.
Well, if they have been in disciplinary trouble, it’s not because of something I did. I don’t know them, and quite frankly, anybody who gets in disciplinary trouble, it’s not because of something I did. Their actions cause a reaction that may be disciplinary.
You don’t seem to be bothered at all by the fact that you’re not liked. Do you feel that’s a fair assumption, that you’re not liked?
Ummm . . . I know people who like me a lot. [laughs] You don’t take a position of responsibility to manage under particular change and expect people to like you or like the things you stand for. If you ask them something about me personally? Find out what they know. They don’t know me.
There have been pictures sent around with your face on Osama bin Laden’s body . . . your face on the Grinch. Have you seen that one?
[shakes head] . . . It’s not something unusual for people in leadership. And I’m not comparing myself to these people. The Dalai Lama was just at the White House, someone who was denounced by an entire country. We have a president that is not liked by everybody. We have a mayor and council members who are not liked by everybody. When you are trying to initiate substantive change in a dysfunctional environment, where people have become comfortable, then that makes them uncomfortable. That discomfort has to be focused somewhere.
You have reported lower response times, in part because of an emphasis on the chute time [the time it takes for firefighters to leave a firehouse]. With that comes the criticism that guys feel like they are under constant surveillance. Do you feel like that is necessary in order to ensure good performance?
There should be direct action when people don’t do what they’re supposed to. I’ll give you an example. On Massachusetts Avenue, in Southeast, right at Texas Avenue, there is a speed camera. People used to fly up and down Mass Avenue. If you look at that traffic now, and I’ve done it. I’ve parked my personal vehicle on the side and watched the traffic on Mass Ave. People slow down now, because if they don’t, the camera gets a picture of them and they get a ticket. Or the camera may not even work for all I know. But I know it’s changed the behavior. And we have a chute time for a reason. Somebody has made a call out there and needs our help. The idea of lackadaisically finishing your sandwich, or watching the end of this TV program or slowly approaching the apparatus is not acceptable. That person made a call for help. And I would venture to say that now that we’re paying attention and people know that we’re paying attention, that response time has been reduced. If they feel like they are going to get in trouble for not doing their jobs, they are absolutely correct.
And do you go out to observe different calls? There are theories that you float around out there.
I live in the city. I’m all over the place. Tell them I am ubiquitous. I am omnipresent if that’s what they want to think. I am watching all of the time. Because I care about what happens in this city. And I’m going to see if I can’t clone my car and get about 10 of them and strategically place them around the city or ask some clones of me to drive them. [laughter] No, seriously, I watch.
You go out in a black SUV, right?
They know what I drive.
So your message to them is if they feel watched, it’s good that they feel watched?
It’s possible that they are being watched. Most times, I see them performing their work admirably. If they don't, I don’t walk away from it. This is where folks seem to think that I’m petty. But I will not walk past anything that is not right.
Do you feel like any of the ill-will directed toward you is racially driven?
You know, I’m glad you asked that question, because I refuse to . . . well, let me say this first. There is a belief that people who practice racist behavior have some level of ignorance. And I’m not going to give anybody a pass based on a presupposed level of ignorance due to racism. That’s a pass. I’m not giving them that. They have their own morals, their own character. They can choose to behave the way they want personally. I’m focused on their professional behavior. If that doesn’t meet the standards that the department requires, then that’s when we have an issue.
So you didn’t say yes or no?
That’s my view. And I want you to write that. Because I don’t want folks to try to label a behavior that has a shroud of explanation and ignorance. I don’t want to give anybody that pass.