D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe apologized to District residents for recent missteps, but he pushed responsibility onto rank-and-file firefighters. (Marvin Joseph/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The chairman of the D.C. Council’s public safety committee on Thursday questioned the city fire chief’s ability to run the department and told him that his job is on the line.

During a contentious five-hour hearing, council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) called Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe’s answers vague as the panel inquired about embarrassing failures involving faulty fleet data and slow ambulance response times.

Wells also asked whether Ellerbe’s office had been truthful when reporting the state of fleet readiness last month, and he warned the chief, “For any information coming forward, you have to put your job behind it.”

The hearing quickly became an inquiry into the chief’s performance, and Wells said, “There’s not much slack.”

Ellerbe, who spent 21 / 2 hours defending his leadership but repeatedly faltered in his answers, unable to state unequivocally that he had enough paramedics or even whether he had visited the 911 center recently. He often turned for help to a deputy mayor who sat beside him at the witness table, once drawing an objection from Wells, who demanded that the chief, not his boss, speak up.

The chief apologized to District residents for recent missteps, but he pushed responsibility onto rank-and-file firefighters. He blamed 100 firefighters who called in sick Jan. 1 for the slow response to a man who suffered a fatal heart attack. He blamed crews that improperly ended their shifts early for the department’s failure to help a D.C. police officer hit by a car. (The officer was transported by an ambulance from Prince George’s County).

Ellerbe said the department had experienced an unfortunate confluence of isolated incidents, not the systemic failures of leadership suggested by Wells and the council chairman, Phil Mendelson (D). He was adamant that he is leading the department in the right direction, insisting, for instance, “In my opinion, our fleet remains in an acceptable state of readiness.”

Mendelson and Wells said the problems point to broader issues of mismanagement. Frustration surfaced when Wells asked Ellerbe, “Is it an issue that you don’t have enough paramedics?”

Ellerbe responded, “We have an issue with paramedic availability.”

To which Wells responded, “Why do you qualify your answers?”

Mendelson expressed surprise that it was only through inquiries by the union and the D.C. inspector general that Ellerbe learned that fire engines in the reserve fleet — equipment he thought could be called up in an emergency — had been decommissioned, with some sold for scrap. Ellerbe blamed a deputy chief and old data, which was submitted to the council committee, but he conceded that he had relied on the faulty information for a year in assessing inventory and preparing budget requests. He said he will hire a civilian to oversee the fleet.

“I just don’t know how the chief of the fire department doesn’t know how many vehicles he has available,” Mendelson said. He noted that Ellerbe has 411 vehicles to keep track of, compared with the 4,000 the police department manages.

Types of first responders

The hearing at the John A. Wilson Building came as pressure on a variety of fronts weighs on Ellerbe. He is trying to push through proposals to change firefighters’ work schedules and redeploy ambulances to improve the response at times of high call volume. The changes, he says, would ease the crunch and prevent the problems that occurred this month.

The union, which voted no confidence in Ellerbe this week, opposes the changes, saying the department needs to hire more people and buy more equipment. The fight comes at a time when the nation’s capital attracts 1 .5 million tourists a year, takes in a half-million commuters a day and has a population that grew by about 13,000 people last year.

Both the union and the fire chief agree that changes are needed to keep up with the growing demand for services. The question is how. Edward C. Smith, the union president, called the department’s fleet “virtually nonexistent,” and he said, “Quite frankly, the department is in disarray.”

Wells said after the hearing that he would “reserve judgement” on Ellerbe, but it was clear from the hearing that the fire department is at a watershed moment. In one particularly testy exchange, Mendelson asked Ellerbe why so many issues were surfacing now. When the chief responded that it sometimes takes a tragedy to prompt change, an angry Mendelson shot back: “Didn’t that incident occur Jan. 6, 2006?”

Mendelson was referring to the death of retired New York Times reporter and editor David E. Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum died after emergency personnel mistook injuries he suffered in a mugging as resulting from drunkenness and labeled the incident a low-priority call. The case led to wholesale reforms that are still being implemented and remains the benchmark for judging the department’s performance.

“I think that seven years after Rosenbaum, we would be further along,” Mendelson said. “I feel that as far as the public is concerned, we’re back to where we were then.”

Further trouble came for Ellerbe when the local firefighters union, Local 36, revealed that numbers the chief’s office had given Wells at a February oversight hearing on the reserve fleet were inaccurate. Many vehicles listed as available for emergencies had in fact been decommissioned; one was in a scrap yard in Wisconsin.

That same week, the D.C. inspector general released a report showing that even more vehicles were unavailable. That report had been delivered to the fire department the day before the February hearing conducted by Wells.

On Thursday, Ellerbe conceded that he had used faulty data for at least a year to assess what his department needed and to put together his budgets. The chief insisted that his most recent capital request — $24 million over three years, including money to buy vehicles — did not need to be changed, and Wells asked him several times whether he was “managing off false data.”