- The Washington Times - Monday, February 6, 2012

D.C. firefighters and department officials are disputing whether orders were issued to rein in the possibility of protests at Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s State of the District address, scheduled for Tuesday.

The dispute came the same day a senior spokesman for the department acknowledged posting comments on social-media sites that described a prior protest by firefighters against the fire chief’s leadership as “racist” in nature.

Firefighters over the weekend began circulating photographs of what they say were orders handwritten into fire-station logbooks that outlined to varying degrees whether firefighters could attend the mayoral address, how they could behave and what they would be expected to wear.

The first directive stated that “any form of disrespect or insubordination, will be dealt with swift punitive action,” union President Edward Smith wrote to members Monday.

After receiving an onslaught of questions about the orders, Mr. Smith said, he reached out to Chief Kenneth Ellerbe via email for clarification. Mr. Smith said he was told the initial order was misconstrued and what was meant was that at the mayor’s address, “any member wearing a uniform shall wear an appropriate uniform.”

But fire department spokesman Lon Walls later in the day denied that the chief had ever issued any order on firefighters’ behavior at the address.

“He’s not issued anything like that,” Mr. Walls said, adding that he was unsure where the photographed logbook entries were coming from. “We’re not sending anything out there on what to wear. We’re encouraging people to come.”

Firefighters, upset over a plan to switch from the 24-hour shifts they have been working for more than two decades to 12-hour shifts, plan to rally outside the mayor’s address on Tuesday. Chief Ellerbe has said he expects the change to reduce the number of firefighters in the District by about 26 percent.

The rally comes after a protest by about 100 firefighters who walked out of Chief Ellerbe’s State of the Department address, delivered at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Northwest on Jan. 24.

The firefighters also were objecting to a new uniform policy that they say disrespects their traditions and requires employees to pay out of pocket for gear with a different fire-department logo.

Mr. Walls, in one of at least three separate comments on the subject posted on his personal Facebook and Twitter accounts, described the walkout as a “racist act.”

“Just witnessed a blatant display of racism and disrespect shown to an African American leader,” Mr. Walls wrote in a Twitter post on Jan. 24, shortly after Chief Ellerbe’s address concluded.

In a subsequent post, Mr. Walls referred Twitter followers to his Facebook page, where he linked to a news story about the walkout and wrote that “the response depicted in the news story was the most blatant, ignorant and racist public display of disrespect I have ever seen.”

The walkout consisted mostly but not exclusively of white firefighters.

Asked Monday to verify the authenticity of the accounts, Mr. Walls noted that the comments were made on his personal, rather than government-related, accounts.

“I have a opinion, which I am entitled to,” Mr. Walls said. “I get a little irritated when I see people showing disrespect. I respect folks’ right to say and speak in protest. … What I’ve seen is a total disrespect.”

Mr. Walls famously told reporters last year, “Social media is for parties. We ain’t givin’ parties,” after a department Twitter stream that provided real-time information about emergencies was silenced abruptly.

Union officials declined to comment on Mr. Walls‘ characterizations.

“I have a diverse membership. It’s not worthy of a response,” Mr. Smith said.

One of the firefighters who participated in the walkout and plans to attend the mayor’s address said the walkout was about a lack in confidence in Chief Ellerbe’s leadership — not his race.

“To say that is small-minded and a desperation ploy,” said Lt. Robert Alvarado, a 12-year department veteran.

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