THE ANNOUNCED retirement of D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe was greeted with relief by the head of the firefighters union, who said the move will “restore public confidence” in the troubled department. The union leader’s approval is understandable since Mr. Ellerbe challenged the union when he thought hidebound practices were not serving the public. But it will take more than the departure of another beleaguered fire chief before the public will be able to trust this department.
What’s needed is real change and a fundamental shift away from entrenched and often counterproductive traditions.
Mr. Ellerbe announced last week that he will step down in July after a turbulent three years in which he tried to modernize a department whose chief mission has evolved from fighting fires to providing emergency medical care. Clearly, the chief made mistakes and had lost his ability to manage effectively, but he was right about the need to change the culture of the department and make it more efficient and accountable.
The centerpiece of his attempted reform was a move away from a work schedule that required firefighters to work just eight or nine days a month. He met with predictable resistance from the firefighters union, which wanted to preserve the ability of its members to live far from the District and hold second jobs. Sensible ideas — such as having more ambulances available during high-demand times — were resisted by politically minded D.C. Council members fearful of challenging the outsized role the firefighters union plays in the management of the department.
Mr. Ellerbe — the fourth chief since 2000 — is but the latest to draw the ire of the union and become a lightning rod for a department that has lived through one controversy after another. These have included equipment failures, delayed response times, excessive overtime and — most heartbreaking — appalling treatment of ailing or injured people. As we have noted before, the problems run deeper than who is at the top. It shouldn’t take the death of another David E. Rosenbaum or Medric “Cecil” Mills Jr. to wake elected officials up to the need for bold action.
The next mayor must be prepared to give the department the shake-up it urgently needs; the D.C. Council has to stop thwarting change. We urge revisiting the issue of separating emergency medical services from fire operations, a move that has succeeded in other cities. Alternatively, in recruiting the next chief, look for someone with a medical background and the expertise to lead a department that spends 80 percent of its time on emergency care and just 20 percent fighting fires.