Eugene A. Jones, the District’s interim fire chief, may only have a guaranteed six months on the job, but don’t call him a caretaker.
He has the pressing challenge of restoring public confidence in one of the nation’s busiest fire departments, while proving himself worthy of holding the top job. Because a new mayor will be elected in November and can choose a permanent leader of the city’s 2,000-member fire and emergency medical services department, the coming months are a tryout, of sorts, for Jones.
Jones, 53, will have to confront crippling discord between management and labor, complaints about slow response times, broken vehicles and a shortage of paramedics.
He also will have to manage the continued fallout for firefighters who failed to help a man who collapsed across the street from a fire station in Northeast Washington and later died. The death of Medric “Cecil” Mills, 77, in January led to calls for the firing of Jones’s predecessor, Kenneth B. Ellerbe, whose last day was Tuesday.
The interim chief, a 25-year veteran of the Prince George’s County fire department, calls many problems that have gained media attention — from purported work slowdowns to ambulances catching fire, and allegations of union sabotage to make the city look bad — “snapshots” and out of context with broader and far more routine successes.
“Overwhelmingly, surveys show the people are very happy with the service the fire department gives,” Jones said during an interview on Wednesday, his first day on the job.
“We can’t question what employees do every day,” added Jones, whom Ellerbe hired as operations chief in November, charging him with the day-to-day oversight of fire and medical calls. “They run calls and they run them well.” Jones said the department’s mission is simple: “People call, we respond, we take care of their needs.”
Both leading mayoral candidates — Democratic nominee Muriel E. Bowser and independent David A. Catania have slightly different approaches to a new chief. Bowser, a council member from Ward 4, said she would launch a nationwide search. Catania, an at-large council member, said preference should be given to those already in the department, but he won’t rule out looking beyond the District.
Jones had been with the District just two months when the Mills incident occurred. It was denounced by the union and management as egregious conduct, and three firefighters are awaiting word on discipline from panels that held hearings last month. The firefighters’ fates could fall to Jones, who can reduce recommended punishments but not increase them.
In his interview, Jones said he was “completely stunned” by the Mills incident. But he was far harsher in an internal memo that quickly leaked to the media, in which he hinted at widespread problems throughout the department. Each shift, Jones wrote a few months ago,“has had outrageous conduct committed by employees” that “has become a nightmare for the command staff” and must be confronted “to reduce the embarrassment and ridicule” of the department.
Ellerbe had a poor relationship with the firefighters union, and Jones has made overtures to the group, which represents 1,800 firefighters. He said the union president, Edward Smith, presented him with a list that included concerns over hiring and maintenance issues. Jones promised to meet with Smith over one of Ellerbe’s most contentious proposals — changing the firefighters’ work schedule with more frequent but shorter shifts — and appeared open to revisiting the issue. And while Ellerbe said it was difficult to hire new paramedics, leaving more than 100 vacancies and sparking frequent criticism, Jones said he doesn’t anticipate problems. “I would like to fill them all,” he said.
On his plate is a trend fire officials are watching carefully: Emergency calls surged unexpectedly starting in March, jumping from about 11,000 or 12,000 a month to 13,000 or 14,000 a month. The increase has held steady through June, and if it continues it could affect hiring, purchasing and deployment practices.
Smith, whose Local 36 union voted no confidence in Ellerbe, said his initial meeting with Jones went well. “We just want a seat at the table and to tell our story,” he said. “We didn’t have that before.” He said the chief’s job is Jones’s “to mess up. If he does a good job, gets the problems fixed, he could be a contender. He has a head start on any other competition.”
But Smith cautioned that Jones’s success might depend on how much autonomy he is given from the mayor’s office, which had unwavering support for Ellerbe. The former chief’s tenure ended after three combative years in which elected leaders questioned whether the department could provide basic care.
Prince George’s has about 800 career firefighters and more than 1,000 volunteers, a strong tradition that also brings a strained relationship with the career firefighters. When Jones became chief, he was under orders to reduce soaring overtime and balance the budget. He succeeded by having volunteers fill stations with personnel shortages, endearing himself to volunteers who had felt pushed aside but angering the paid firefighters who said Jones’s approach endangered lives
Jones has detractors from his time in Prince George’s. The president of the county’s fire union, Andrew Pantelis, said Jones sent understaffed trucks to fires.
“He is not fit to lead any fire and EMS agency,” Pantelis said. “He was never able to gain much credibility with the rank and file personnel. . . .When and if you didn’t agree with him, you found yourself in some kind of trouble.”
Pete Mellits, president of the Prince George’s Volunteer Fire Rescue Association, said Jones was “able to sit under stress and negotiate and get to an agreement that is equitable for everybody. If nothing else, he’ll sit there and he’ll talk and listen and try to come together on a resolution.”
Mark Brady, the chief spokesman for Prince George’s fire who has known Jones most of his career, said the interim chief will have a “fresh outlook” on the District.
“Jones is a very straight forward and direct person,” Brady said. “You know exactly where you stand when you talk to him. He’s going to expect you do what you are supposed to do and what you get paid to do.”