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Union votes no confidence in D.C. fire chief

- The Washington Times - Monday, March 25, 2013

D.C. firefighters overwhelmingly voted no confidence in D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe at a Monday morning meeting, citing mismanagement of the department's fleet, staffing and safety failures and a pattern of retaliatory actions taken by his administration.

"Fire Chief Ellerbe now has a two-year record that has resulted in a failed approach to leadership that has needlessly endangered the public through excessive delays in response due to staffing and fleet mismanagement, and dangerous situations for the firefighters who are sworn to protect the citizens and visitors of our city," union officials said in a statement issued Monday after the vote.

The 300-37 vote has only symbolic, value. But it's the first time since 2001, under then Chief Ronnie Few, that the 1,800-member union has approved a resolution of no confidence in a chief.

"It's a sad day when we have to use that as a recourse to let the public know they're in harm's way," union President Edward Smith said.

Chief Ellerbe said in a statement that, despite the vote, he is optimistic about the department's future.

"I remain deeply committed to resolving the issues before us," Chief Ellerbe said. "I look forward to strengthening our capabilities and putting our resources to better use in order to uphold the confidence of those we serve every day."

The chief has supporters within the department, and a handful of them held signs and demonstrated outside the union hall in Northeast D.C. before the vote.

Paul A. Quander Jr., the city's deputy mayor for public safety and justice, also issued a statement Monday afternoon saying the chief has his support in ongoing efforts to "modernize and move the agency forward."

But the vote on the four-page resolution that outlines a litany of complaints against Chief Ellerbe comes on the heels of a series of highly publicized questionable incidents involving the department.

An inspector general's report issued last week criticized the readiness of the department's reserve fleet of trucks and ambulances that are pressed into service when other equipment breaks down or a mass response is required. The report was made public after Chief Ellerbe gave inaccurate information to the D.C. Council about the state of the department's reserve equipment, referring to some units as available that had been scrapped or sold. The chief said the inaccuracies were not deliberate, but the incident prompted questions and criticism from D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, head of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety that has oversight of the fire department.

Mr. Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, is scheduled to hold a hearing Thursday on the department's capacity to provide timely ambulance service after a March 5 incident during which no D.C. ambulance was available to transport an injured police officer to a hospital.

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.

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