D.C. fire union chief calls sabotage claim ‘nuts’

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The District’s ambulances have been sabotaged.

The assertion, laid out in a D.C. inspector general’s report, is the latest tit-for-tat allegation highlighting the erosion of relations between labor and management within the city’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.

The report documents the department’s lack of an appropriate number of functional reserve fire apparatus and ambulances, noting that deficiencies among the apparatus division’s operations are mostly to blame for the fleet’s problems.

“Our observations and analysis showed that many FEMS vehicles designated as reserve vehicles were out of service and could not be used if needed as replacement vehicles in neighborhood fire stations, or during large-scale emergencies or mass casualty events,” the report states.

But it also recommends the department investigate allegations that employees were sabotaging ambulances by breaking air conditioner lines or purposely burning out their transmissions. So many units were damaged in 2011 that the fire department contemplated installing miniature cameras inside the units to catch any tampering by employees, the report states.

The allegations, made by a department official to the inspector general’s team, is just one among several recent examples of the lack of trust among both the rank and file and management, who have chronically suffered from tense relations.

“That’s just nuts,” D.C. Firefighters Association President Edward Smith said of the sabotage allegation.

If the problem is as widespread as it seemed in the report, Mr. Smith questioned why the department hasn’t had its own full-scale investigation to catch the supposed culprits. Rather than focusing on the allegations of tampering, Mr. Smith said he hopes the department will recognize the serious issues with the reserve fleet that the rest of the report highlights.

“That’s like one blurb in that report. The rest of the stuff are things we’ve blown the whistle on for years,” he said.

In a response to the report, Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe promised to investigate the charges.

Tensions have run high between the firefighters union and Chief Ellerbe since he took over the department in 2011, boiling over as the chief contemplated a major change in firefighters’ shift work, which would radically alter employees’ schedules. Contract negotiations between the two sides remain at an impasse.

The inspector general’s report, issued Friday, is just the latest bit of information likely to color discussions in a Thursday oversight hearing on the department’s capacity to provide timely ambulance service. D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, head of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety that has oversight of the fire department, called for the hearing after a highly publicized March 5 incident during which no D.C. ambulance was available to transport an injured police officer to a hospital.

In the days after the incident, speculation fueled rumors about activities of ambulance crews that night, with one government official reportedly stating that it was under investigation whether some crews had tried to go out of service before the end of their shifts so they would not have to be held over on another call.

The department issued a report on the incident last week, identifying seven employees who could face possible disciplinary action for failing to follow protocol that night — none of which was faulted for trying to skip out early on a shift.

The union has criticized the chief’s previous punishment of employees following several incidents that embarrassed the department, calling it retaliatory — a view shared in at least one case by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Although the March 5 incident again opened rifts, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul A. Quander Jr. said he doesn’t think that department employees will be unduly punished.

“I think the process will work. It’s the same process for everyone,” Mr. Quander said. “I have seen nothing that leads me to believe the process is inequitable.”

Fire officials have also accused employees of orchestrating a “sick out” on New Year’s Eve — when 100 firefighters called out — leaving the department short-staffed and the night concluding with the death of a man who had to wait 40 minutes for an ambulance to transport him to a hospital. The union has denied that the call outs were part of any organized effort.

Amid debate between the sides over the readiness of the department fleet, Chief Ellerbe offered an olive branch of sorts — thanking the union for exposing a mistake in the department’s fire apparatus record keeping. The chief had testified before the D.C. Council on Feb. 20, citing a list of apparatus that the union later proved was incorrect as some of the equipment had been sold or was not in service.

But now even that gratitude has come into question as the inspector general’s report — which outlines the deficiencies in the fleet — states that it was provided to the department on Feb. 19, the day before the chief testified to the contrary.

Mr. Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, told The Associated Press that the development “certainly undermines my confidence in the management of the fire department.”

“If they used the information that they provided me that said the reserve trucks are available when they’re not even in the District of Columbia and we don’t even own them anymore, then that tells me there’s a massive breakdown of administrative competence.”

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