D.C. Council member calls on fire chief to resign

Cheh cites mismanagement, lack of public confidence

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A D.C. Council member is calling on the District’s fire chief to resign, after the release last week of a committee report that questioned the chief’s leadership ability and recommended disapproval of his signature ambulance redeployment plan.

In a letter requesting that a plan be developed to identify the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services department’s equipment, personnel and deployment needs, D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh requested that fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe step down.

“It is now very plain that the agency’s ability to respond to emergencies has been significantly degraded, and I lay that fact at the doorstep of poor management,” Ms. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, wrote to fellow council member Tommy Wells. “I believe that the current Chief no longer has the confidence of the people of the District and should resign.”

But a senior official with Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration said the department is operating more effectively now than when Chief Ellerbe was appointed in 2011 and that the administration will “stay the course.”

“Many of the incidents that Chief Ellerbe has dealt with during his tenure have been rooted in issues that preceded his hiring as chief,” said Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul A. Quander Jr., adding that more work lies ahead.

Asked in an email Tuesday whether the fire chief had any response to the call for his resignation, fire department spokesman Tim Wilson replied, “No.”

On Friday, a D.C. Council committee led by Mr. Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, voted down the fire department’s ambulance redeployment plan, which would reduce the number of ambulances providing critical care overnight, instead making additional advanced life-support ambulances available to respond to calls during busier daytime hours. The full D.C. Council will vote on the matter next week.

While Mr. Wells has expressed doubt in the department’s ability to keep up with staffing and apparatus needs, he’s stopped short of saying that the chief should be replaced.

“I don’t know if this goes away by changing chiefs or not,” Mr. Wells said. “I’m not going to focus on individuals. I think this is the responsibility of the mayor and his administration.”

The fire department’s ability to provide emergency services has come under scrutiny in recent months after a series of high-profile gaffes — including a March incident in which no ambulances were available to transport an injured police officer to a hospital. Mr. Wells noted that department staffing is down by 160 employees, with overtime heavily used to fill vacancies.

In Ms. Cheh’s call for a comprehensive plan for the department, she asks that the mayor explore a wider array of options than those initially proposed by Chief Ellerbe — including the department’s budget, its apparatus and whether staffing shortages could be addressed through volunteer firefighters.

Ms. Cheh was also one of three council members to request that Mr. Gray resign from office after federal prosecutors outlined a conspiracy to funnel illegal campaign contributions to his 2010 mayoral campaign.

The firefighters union voted no confidence in Chief Ellerbe in March, prompting then-D.C. Council candidate Patrick Mara to call on Mr. Gray to replace the chief. Ms. Cheh is the first elected official to ask for his resignation.

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