A deputy fire chief appointed earlier this year to oversee the D.C. fire department's troubled apparatus division is being demoted to battalion chief after the embarrassing discovery that several ambulances were repaired with street signs.
Mechanics from the Department of Public Works — who were asked to step in and assist the fire department's overwhelmed mechanics shop — bent aluminum street signs and used them as makeshift heat shields inside the engine compartments of four ambulances while repairing the units last month.
The improvised repairs were brought to the attention of Deputy Chief John Donnelly on the afternoon of Aug. 12, according to an email sent by the firefighters' union to Chief Donnelly.
But an official with knowledge of the incident said Chief Donnelly did not forward the matter up his chain of command — to either an assistant fire chief or to Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe.
The email reporting the haphazard work arrived in Chief Donnelly's inbox just hours after department leadership held a meeting — addressing issues surrounding an ambulance assigned to President Obama's motorcade that ran out of gas the prior week — to emphasize that lapses in communication and oversight would not be tolerated, the official said.
Two days after the meeting, the firefighters union publicized a photo of one of the ambulances repaired with a street sign, prompting the department to pull the ambulances off the street to be properly repaired.
Chief Donnelly has been transferred out of the apparatus division, but the department has declined to provide details about where he was moved or delve into the reasons behind the demotion.
"Chief Donnelly is still on duty and has not been placed on administrative leave or suspended," fire department spokesman Tim Wilson said in an email. "The department is actively searching for a certified fleet manager to head the apparatus division."
Paul A. Quander Jr., deputy mayor for public safety and justice, said he would not go into details because the issue was a personnel matter. But he did emphasize that it was important that all members of the agency be held accountable for their actions and decisions.
"Every member of [the fire department] is held to a standard of performance, and those standards are universal," Mr. Quander said in a statement. "When situations arise where those standards are not met, our staff is held accountable. And that happens whether they are rank and file or management."
Chief Donnelly declined to comment through a representative. The 21-year fire department veteran was appointed to lead the fleet maintenance division in March after the retirement of Deputy Chief Wayne Branch. The former division head stepped down amid concern about overtime spending by department mechanics and after Chief Branch inadvertently provided incorrect information about the department's apparatus numbers to Chief Ellerbe before the chief's testimony in front of the D.C. Council.
The firefighters union, which does not represent Chief Donnelly, questioned the reasons for the demotion and said no official word of it has been sent out through typical department channels.
"How many times can they wash out a deputy chief at the apparatus division before the fire chief takes accountability?" union President Ed Smith said. "I don't know what he's being accused of to warrant the demotion, but as far as I know John Donnelly has had a spotless career."
D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, who heads the committee that oversees the fire department, said he wouldn't wade into personnel decisions made within the agency but praised Chief Donnelly's handling of the massive four-alarm fire that destroyed Frager's Hardware on Capitol Hill in June.
"I just really admired the way he managed the whole thing," Mr. Wells said of Chief Donnelly, who served as acting chief in Chief Ellerbe's absence.
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