D.C. fire department staffer suspended over online posts

A D.C. fire department spokesman has been placed on administrative leave for comments he made online characterizing a protest by firefighters against fire department leadership as “racist.”

D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe suspended department spokesman Lon Walls with pay in order allow tensions within the department to “cool off,” said Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray.

“Things were getting heated; things were getting personal,” Mr. Ribeiro said, adding the suspension likely would last “a couple days.”

Mr. Walls confirmed on Monday that he made the comments on his personal Twitter and Facebook accounts. One of the posts, referencing the decision by more than 100 firefighters to walk out of a State of the Department address delivered by Chief Ellerbe, stated that the walkout was the “most blatant, ignorant and racist public display of disrespect I have ever seen.”

The comments, which were posted online shortly after the Jan. 24 address at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, were taken offline Monday night after The Washington Times asked Mr. Walls about them. Mr. Walls removed the posts at the request of Chief Ellerbe, Mr. Ribeiro said.

Firefighters who participated in the walkout have said their protest was meant to draw attention to issues in the department, such as a controversial shift-change proposal, a lack of training, and a hostile work environment experienced by those who openly criticize the chief.

Mr. Gray said Wednesday he did not support the characterization made by Mr. Walls.

“I didn’t write it. I wouldn’t have said it,” Mr. Gray said. “I don’t think it’s helpful.”

Anger about the posts flared up this week as firefighters and fire department leadership sparred over whether officials issued directives in an effort to rein in possible protests at the mayor’s State of the District address Tuesday night.

Firefighters over the weekend began circulating photographs of a variety of similarly worded orders they said were handwritten into fire-station logbooks and outlined behavior at the mayor’s address that would result in punishment.

Paul Quander, deputy mayor for public safety and justice, denied that fire officials were responsible for the purported orders.

“It did not go out from management,” Mr. Quander said Wednesday, echoing statements previously made by Mr. Walls.

The fire department union maintains the orders came from department leadership and said the union has a chain of email discussions with Chief Ellerbe that prove it.

“The guys didn’t make that up,” union President Edward Smith said. “I have the emails.”

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