Ellerbe names an outsider as assistant D.C. fire chief for operations

The D.C. fire department has hired a polarizing former Prince George’s County chief to its No. 2 spot in charge of the department’s operations.

A special order from Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe named Eugene A. Jones, who served about two years as head of the Prince George’s County fire department, to the position of assistant fire chief effective Monday.

As an outsider who came up through the ranks of the county fire department, the D.C. firefighters union says Mr. Jones has his work cut out for him.

“D.C. is absolutely a whole different world than PG,” said Edward Smith, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association. “We have different operations. He’s got a tough job ahead.”

Mr. Jones led the Prince George’s County department from early 2009 — returning to the department after retiring as a major with 25 years of service — through December 2010 when incoming County Executive Rushern L. Baker III opted to replace him. But in the short time he headed the department, Mr. Jones routinely found his policies and cost-cutting measures the target of union scrutiny.

“While Eugene Jones served as chief of the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department, we endured many challenges under his leadership,” said Andrew Pantelis, president of the Prince George’s County Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics Association. “In his short tenure, we witnessed a significant reduction in staffing which resulted in station closures, increased response times and dangerous work practices.”

While Mr. Smith said he was not familiar with allegations made by the county union about Mr. Jones, he questioned the decision to hire from outside the city and the department.

“It’s just strange because when the confirmation hearings were held for Ellerbe, the city was all about hiring from within. It seems a little hypocritical to me that with One City-One Hire, that they went outside,” Mr. Smith said, referring to a program promoted by Mayor Vincent C. Gray to encourage employers to hire D.C. residents.

Public records indicate Mr. Jones lives in Beltsville and has registered his consulting business, Systems Emergency Preparedness Consultants, there. D.C. officials did not respond for comment about whether Mr. Jones would move into the District as a condition of his employment.

Under Mr. Jones‘ leadership in Prince George’s County, the department reduced overtime costs, but union officials derided the measures used to do so — which included hefty reliance on volunteer firefighters after the department removed all career personnel from some of the county’s fire stations. Unlike the D.C. fire department, which is solely staffed by career firefighters and medical personnel, the county fire department is a combination force relying on the help of approximately 1,100 volunteers to supplement coverage.

On one occasion, labor accused Mr. Jones of retaliation against a lieutenant colonel who had filed a grievance with the union.

“The unfortunate fact is that the Fire Chief has used a grievance as a convenient excuse to take an action that he has longed to execute for some time,” wrote Mr. Pantelis in a 2010 letter to union members about the termination of Lt. Col. Victor Stagnaro.

Officials from the D.C. fire department and the office of the deputy mayor for public safety and justice did not respond to requests for comment about Mr. Jones‘ hiring.

But while the policies put in place by Mr. Jones in Prince George’s County rankled the union, volunteers there said he helped quell animosity between fire department leadership and the volunteer companies.

“He was able to bring the budget under control and we were able to get the supplies we needed as volunteers,” said John Alter, chairman of the Prince George’s County Fire Commission. “He was accessible and we could talk with him about our needs.”

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