A D.C. firefighter filed a complaint with police accusing Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe of assault, pointing to an encounter last week in which the firefighter said he was injured after the chief showed up at the scene of an ambulance fire and grabbed the man’s cellphone from his hand.
The report, made available Wednesday, states “the suspect grabbed and removed a cellular telephone” from the 33-year-old firefighter’s hand, causing an injury to his right wrist. Chief Ellerbe was not named in the report, but a police spokeswoman provided the report number when asked about a complaint involving the fire chief, and D.C. officials have confirmed the investigation.
The report centers around an Aug. 13 encounter, in which an ambulance caught fire in Southeast D.C. while responding to a medical call. Photos and videos taken at the scene capturing the department’s embarrassing moment were widely distributed through social media that day.
The firefighter was one of those who responded to the scene after the fire was reported and was still there when the chief arrived.
Firefighters’ union representative Dabney Hudson said he was the one who published a photo of the ambulance ablaze on the union’s Twitter account and said he did not receive the photo from the firefighter in question.
The complaint was filed Tuesday, after days of rumors and speculation within the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services ranks that Chief Ellerbe had been charged with assault. Washingtonian magazine first reported the incident.
In an interview with WRC-TV, Chief Ellerbe disputed the firefighter’s account.
“I can tell you that I didn’t snatch the phone from him,” he said. “I asked him if he had [a cellphone], asked if I could see it, he gave it to me, and that was the end of it as far as I was concerned.”
Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul A. Quander Jr. said Wednesday the complaint would be investigated.
“Any time there is a complaint filed, the police department will do their investigation and we will await the findings of the investigation,” he said.
He also questioned the timing of the complaint.
When asked whether the firefighter faced pressure from the department not to file a police report, Mr. Quander said, “I can’t speak to that. You’ll have to ask him. And you can also ask, ‘Why did it take six days?’ ”
In the time since the encounter, Mr. Quander’s spokesman said the firefighter has been on sick leave.
“He had been off on sick leave because he was, in his opinion, so egregiously injured and traumatized that he could not work,” spokesman Keith St. Clair said.
The firefighter could not be reached Wednesday.
The complaint ratchets up already tense relations between the fire department’s labor and management.
Mr. Quander last week asked the police department to investigate the ambulance fire at which the photo was captured as well as a second ambulance fire that occurred that day to determine whether anything “untoward is occurring to these vehicles.”
The comment rankled union officials, who took it as an accusation that leadership suspects the rank and file of sabotaging ambulances.
“They’ve taken an accusatory reaction on everything involving our employees,” Mr. Hudson said.
Problems concerning the department’s beleaguered ambulance fleet and its staffing woes have cropped up repeatedly this year. Nearly three-fourths of the ambulance fleet required repairs after massive breakdowns occurred last month during a week of high temperatures, and medic shortages have regularly forced units staffed with highly trained paramedics to downgrade their level of care because only lesser trained emergency medical technicians were available.
The fire department is expected to unveil newly purchased ambulances and introduce new hires early next week.
“The chief is doing a good job,” Mr. Quander said. “There are many obstacles that are in front of him.”