- The Washington Times - Monday, February 20, 2012

The District’s fire chief promised stiff consequences against firefighters after finding beer in a refrigerator at a U Street Northwest fire station.

But the punishment for the two firefighters involved in the September incident apparently was not strong enough. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe is now seeking to demote the battalion chief who reprimanded, rather than suspended, the men.

“Your failure to hold the members accountable for their receipt of the beer in violation of the Rules of Conduct brings into question your ability to exercise proper judgment in the performance of your assigned duties,” Chief Ellerbe wrote in a notice to Battalion Chief Richard Sterne, advising him that he would be demoted to the rank of captain.

Chief Sterne, who received the notice Feb. 9, said demotions from that rank are “unheard of” and is fighting the action.

“Our contention is there was no cause to take this action against him,” said Chief Sterne’s attorney, James Pressler. “He exercised really sound judgment. Apparently, for whatever reason, the fire chief thought there should be some more discipline.”

Chief Ellerbe declined to comment, saying it was a personnel matter.

The demotion order stems from a D.C. resident’s delivery of two 12-packs of beer to Engine Co. 9 to thank firefighters who extinguished a fire at his home. Firefighters declined to accept the beer, but the man left it at the fire station.

Two firefighters said they put the beer into a refrigerator to get it out of public view and planned to remove it from the firehouse when their shift ended the next day. In the meantime, Chief Ellerbe stopped by the station, saw the beer and closed the station for two hours so all employees there could be tested for alcohol consumption. None of the employees at the station was found to have been drinking.

Punishment of 24-hour suspensions was proposed, but disciplinary action was left to Chief Sterne.

Chief Sterne, who has made numerous disciplinary decisions during his 31 years with the department, determined that the men violated rules by permitting alcohol in the firehouse, but did not violate a rule about accepting gifts. He issued official reprimand letters and said there was “no intentional misconduct.”

“My job is to get all the facts and consider all that,” Chief Sterne said. “That’s what I did.”

In his letter, Chief Ellerbe noted that Chief Sterne had the authority to reduce the punishment, but said he did not take into consideration a prior offense by one of the men, and therefore created an appearance of “preferential treatment.”

“I have concluded that your actions are a detriment to effective workplace operations and have resulted in a loss of my confidence in you and belief that you cannot be relied upon in your current position,” Chief Ellerbe wrote.

The prior offense was wholly unrelated to the beer incident, so Chief Sterne “didn’t think it was fair to hold it against him,” Mr. Pressler said.

Based on the fire department’s disciplinary procedures, the harshest punishment Chief Sterne could have handed down was a 72-hour suspension, he said. Harsher penalties would have had to be issued through a trial board or other means. By referring the incident to a battalion chief to handle, Chief Sterne said, it was obvious that fire officials didn’t regard the beer incident as a major offense.

Chief Sterne said the order to demote him would cost him an estimated $12,000 in annual pay.

“I’ve been making life-and-death kind of decisions for thousands of incidents, and no one has ever doubted my judgment before,” he said.

Chief Sterne said he hopes his response to the demotion notice will result in reconsideration. If the move is not reversed, Mr. Pressler said, they intend to challenge the decision with the District’s office of employee appeals.

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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