- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Nearly $70,000 worth of brand-new shirts ordered by the District’s fire department have gone unused because they are adorned with the wrong emblem, fire officials testified Wednesday.

The 1,750 National Fire Protection Association-compliant polo-style shirts were ordered in October 2010, according to a purchase order obtained by The Washington Times through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The shirts, which were $39 apiece according to the purchase order, were delivered early last year. But because they are polo-style, which Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe has said can no longer be worn as part of the uniform, and because they are embroidered with an old emblem that the District’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department no longer uses, the shirts have sat boxed in a warehouse, fire officials admitted.

The purchase and subsequent lack of use of the shirts, which would typically be worn underneath firefighters’ outerwear, have attracted the attention of the city’s inspector general, according to testimony Wednesday at the D.C. Council Committee on the Judiciary’s oversight hearing on the District's fire department.

“The IG asked us about polo shirts and other equipment we may have had that we weren’t using because of the old patch,” Chief Ellerbe said.

The chief, who was appointed as head of the department in December 2010, said the order for the polo shirts was not placed under his command and that he has not even been able to locate the shirts in question.

“I’ve been to the warehouse and I’ve still never seen them,” Chief Ellerbe said.

But The Washington Times has obtained photographs taken last month that show crates filled with the blue short-sleeved polo shirts featuring a patch that was in use under former Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin and which was discontinued under Chief Ellerbe. According to the purchase order, the shirts are made of 100 percent cotton, of which the NFPA approves, since polyester and blends can melt to the body and contribute to burn injuries.

The existence of the shirts has long been rumored within the department but had not been substantiated — a point Mr. Mendelson noted in his questioning.

“Chief, I have asked you many times, have I not, about the truth of the polo shirts? And every time I’ve asked until this week the answer was been, ‘There are none,’” Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said during the hearing.

None of the fire officials present were able to confirm when this year the inspector general’s office first inquired about the shirts.

“We’re going to look at ways we can utilize the shirts if we can’t recoup the cost of them,” Chief Ellerbe said.