No money sought for new D.C. firetrucks deemed ‘oversight’

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The District’s fire chief was at a loss Wednesday to explain to a D.C. Council committee why his department sought no money in this year’s budget for trucks and ambulances despite a fleet that is aging and in disrepair.

The city is expected to receive 30 new ambulances this year through $6.6 million allotted after vehicle maintenance and replacement became an issue following a series of high-profile malfunctions. But D.C. Council member Tommy Wells grilled Chief Kenneth Ellerbe about the lack of funds appropriated this fiscal year, which started after problems with the fleet were already well documented.

“There was no money in the budget for this fiscal year for fleet replacement — none. And I’m sure that you will get it in there,” said Mr. Wells, a Ward 6 Democrat and mayoral candidate who heads the council committee with oversight of the department. “But I cannot ignore the fact that no capital dollars were requested to see that you had the trucks and ambulances you needed in this year’s budget.”

Chief Ellerbe said the issue was a possible “oversight” and added that the person in charge of the budget has since retired.

“That may have been oversight on our department’s part, but this has all caused all of us to take a very harsh look at the way the department has been run and has also given us an opportunity to make changes,” Chief Ellerbe said.

The hearing was held to provide updates on a number of issues that have plagued the fire department and came after the release of a 200-page audit report that found chronic issues with fleet management and apparatus maintenance and replacement that have festered over the past 15 to 20 years.

Of the 30 new ambulances purchased by the fire department, the city has received 13 of the vehicles. But the fire chief found himself stumbling again during Wednesday’s hearing when Mr. Wells asked where the units were deployed and whether all 13 were currently on the street.

“Some are in service,” the chief said.

One of the new units was assigned to President Obama, possibly to assure no embarrassing repeats of an incident this summer when the unit assigned to the White House had a broken fuel gauge and ran out of gas.

Another unit was struck by a car and has since been sent to the shop for “cosmetic work,” Chief Ellerbe said. He could not account for the assignments of the other 11 ambulances during the course of the hearing but said the department would receive the additional 17 units by year’s end.

Mr. Wells also questioned progress at the department’s fleet maintenance division, including whether overtime spending in the shop would be cut from previous high levels and whether the shop is equipped to track repairs with its current computer system. Chief Ellerbe assured the council member that overtime spending would be cut but said it would take intensive training of the entire department before the shop’s computer tracking system could be used.

A union official representing the repair shop’s employees said he was impressed with Chief Ellerbe’s commitment to fixing problems at the shop that had been ignored by previous fire chiefs.

“Chief Ellerbe has been the first chief in the last 10 years or more to try and address these issues,” said Emory Crawford, of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3721.

While Mr. Wells at times took a hard line with Chief Ellerbe during the hours-long hearing, he stressed that the fire department needs strong partnerships with other city agencies to ensure the department gets the support it needs.

“They can share in responsibility for success, but they must also share responsibility for failure,” Mr. Wells said. “I don’t believe that this is your job alone.”

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