As Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe on Tuesday touted the D.C. fire department’s accomplishments during his first year as its leader, firefighters and emergency medical services workers had a message for him: They want better leadership.
Approximately 100 firefighters stood in unison, turned their backs and, chanting “DCFD,” walked out of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Northwest after Chief Ellerbe finished his “State of the Department” address and opened the floor to questions.
The DCFD chant referred to an ongoing controversy over a uniform logo that Chief Ellerbe elected to replace — one point of contention among employees of the 2,000-member department who voiced concern about the out-of-pocket costs they have to pay to comply with uniform changes. But the complaints went deeper than just the uniforms.
“We have zero confidence in his ability to lead this department,” 12-year-veteran firefighter Lt. Robert Alvarado said outside the library after the address.
Firefighters complained about a hostile work environment under Chief Ellerbe and criticized policies he has proposed, such as a shift change that would drastically alter employees work hours.
“He needs to be focused on recruiting and retaining paramedics and rebuilding the apparatus fleet,” Lt. Alvarado said.
Other firefighters, who declined to give their names due to fear of retaliation, said the chief is too focused on “peripheral issues” such as the uniform changes.
“We have zero career development,” an 11-year veteran of the department said. “We are flying by the seat of our pants.”
Another 19-year veteran of the department said weekly in-service training of employees has ceased and as a result newer employees are not properly prepared.
During his address, Chief Ellerbe touted high points for the department, including several new apparatus purchases and the department’s quick response times. Response times to emergency calls for first-due companies run at an average of less than two minutes, and 98 percent of calls are responded to in less than six minutes, he said.
The chief also voiced continued support of a pilot program started over the summer that placed firefighters on high-crime corners throughout the city as they waited for calls. The extra eyes helped reduce crime, he said.
“We don’t fight crime. We’re not crime fighters but we can be good witnesses,” Chief Ellerbe said.
The other advantage of the “soft posting” was increased visibility among firefighters in the community, a tactic Chief Ellerbe said he hopes will draw favor from residents during upcoming budget talks.
“Only 25 percent of our members live in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “The city needs to know who our firefighters are.”