- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 28, 2005

The D.C. fire department is facing a leadership vacuum, with nearly half of its most-senior uniformed positions being filled by officers serving in an acting capacity.

Both of the department’s assistant chief positions, which are second only to that of fire Chief Adrian H. Thompson’s, are filled by acting officers. Five of the 12 deputy chief positions, which rank under the assistant chiefs, are filled by officers who are either acting or are temporarily detailed to their posts.

Firefighters have complained about the lack of stability and experience among their leadership as they maintain a high level of alert and activity in a post-September 11 environment.

“The problem that you have is that you have no consistency in these positions,” said Lt. Ray Sneed, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association. “In an agency this size, you need consistency, and people should be promoted to fill those positions.”

In addition, next year’s mayoral election could ring in a new administration — with a new fire chief.

Some firefighters, citing Chief Thompson’s service as an assistant chief, have expressed concern that in-house candidates who would qualify for the top job would be passed over because lesser-ranking officers are rotating through acting positions in senior management.

City personnel policies allow career service employees to serve in an acting capacity for no more than 120 days. Two of the acting deputies have been in their positions for 104 days.

However, Chief Thompson said the department’s legal counsel, Teresa Cusick, advised him that those policies do not apply to the fire department.

“That’s my style of management, and it works. I must have that kind of latitude,” said Chief Thompson, adding that he is using the acting promotions to train and evaluate his personnel.

Chapter 8 of the District Personnel Manual spells out hiring and promotion rules for all career service workers. Employees cannot serve in an acting capacity for more than 120 days, and employers cannot use temporary promotions for training or evaluating workers.

These rules apply to the uniformed officers of the police and fire departments unless they conflict with the D.C. Code’s policies for uniformed officers. The D.C. Code, however, does not provide rules for temporary — or acting — promotions.

It would appear that the fire department is subject to the personnel manual’s rules for temporary promotions, but the D.C. Office of Personnel was unable to provide a clarifying opinion on the matter.

“I think it’s a chance to see how you can perform the job,” Chief Thompson said of his department’s acting promotions.

Meanwhile, Assistant Chief of Operations James B. Martin is on indefinite leave after being charged with driving while intoxicated last week. His position is being filled in an acting capacity by Deputy Chief Doug Smith, formerly the chief of Platoon #2.

Chief Martin, who had held the only permanent assistant chief post, is expected to retire.

Deputy Chief Kenneth Ellerbe is serving as acting assistant chief of services, supervising the support systems for the fire prevention division, training division, fleet maintenance, facilities maintenance and health and safety.

Chief Thompson appointed Chief Ellerbe as acting assistant chief in February 2004, when Assistant Chief Pete Miller retired. Chief Ellerbe has remained in the acting role for 17 months.

A third assistant chief’s position — chief of emergency medical services — was downgraded to a deputy chief position in 2002. The last uniformed fire officer to serve in that capacity was EMS Chief Steve Reid, who retired in 2003.

Of the department’s 12 deputy chief positions, two — the fire prevention division and the training academy chiefs — are being filled in an acting capacity.

Two others, which fire officials say have been filled by deputy chiefs but are not required to be, are being filled by battalion chiefs — the executive officer and professional standards chief.

Fire officials have detailed a battalion chief to Platoon #2 to fill the vacancy created when Chief Smith replaced Chief Martin.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, whose judiciary committee has oversight of the fire department, said he plans to speak to Chief Thompson about the depth of the chief’s “bench,” but he said he does not see any immediate problems with the acting officers.

“With regard to an agency that’s not top-heavy, I’m kind of OK with that,” said Mr. Mendelson, at-large Democrat. “I think what’s more important than having experience [in the job] is having experience in the work force.”

The assistant chief positions could be difficult to fill permanently because they are excepted service positions, meaning that whoever gets the job serves at the pleasure of the fire chief.

Chief Thompson, meanwhile, said he has no plans to retire.

“I’ll serve as long as the mayor wants me or until I achieve everything I set out to achieve,” he said.

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