The chronically troubled D.C. fire department faces six months of temporary leadership after embattled Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe announced Thursday he was stepping down from his post.
The chief’s retirement from lame-duck Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration was welcome news to politicians who had sought his resignation amid a series of operational failures and a rank-and-file that had voted no confidence in him. It comes amid “urgent challenges,” such as inadequate staffing and hiring and a poorly maintained fleet, D.C. Council member Tommy Wells said.
“The fact that they have not been able to replace firefighters and paramedics at the rate they were leaving is a major challenge,” said the Ward 6 Democrat, who heads the council committee with oversight of the agency. “They cannot hire and train fast enough to ensure they have the staffing they need over the summer.”
Edward Smith, head of the firefighters union, estimates 170 current vacancies in the 2,000-member department and worries about staffing during the strenuous summer months ahead.
“I’m fearful that we will see some tough days in July and August,” he said.
Assistant Fire Chief Eugene Jones, who spent most of his career in the fire service in neighboring Prince George’s County, has worked in the District since November and will take over as interim chief.
But in an agency that desperately needs to change in order to improve the quality of its medical care, he won’t be able to do much good during that time, said Kenneth Lyons, president of the union that represents the department’s civilian paramedics.
“They’ve replaced Chief Ellerbe, a firefighter, with another firefighter, Chief Jones, who is not even from the District,” Mr. Lyons said. “I don’t think you can place an individual in that position to manage the chaos, and that is what Chief Jones is being asked to do.”
Council member Muriel Bowser, the Democratic nominee for mayor, has said she wouldn’t keep Chief Ellerbe on if elected and on Thursday called his decision to step aside “honorable.” If she finds herself in the position of appointing a new fire chief, she said she would want to consider both candidates from inside the agency and from other departments.
“I think I would want to consider talent where ever it comes from to move the department forward,” she said.
Chief Ellerbe’s troubled tenure included equipment failures, staffing issues, allegations of retaliation, as well as several high-profile incidents that ranged from firefighters refusing to help a dying man to an ambulance assigned to the White House that ran out of gas.
Complaints about vindictiveness and arbitrary and inconsistent discipline quickly emerged, after Chief Ellerbe chose to take on firefighters over things like the department’s logo amid legitimate concerns that the fleet was deteriorating and the quality of care was diminishing.
Confidence in the department’s ability to respond to emergencies was shaken last summer as ambulances broke down during a heat wave, amid a series of failed responses that included an injured police officer having to wait 30 minutes for transport to a hospital. But criticism of the department’s failings became insurmountable this year after 77-year-old Medric Cecil Mills collapsed across the street from a firehouse and was denied aid by the firefighters there, later dying at a hospital.
The chief, a career D.C. firefighter and longtime friend and supporter of Mr. Gray, said he accomplished several of his goals since being named to the position in 2010.
“I’ve checked all the boxes of the things I said I would do when I was hired: cadet program, paramedic training program, fleet improvement and controlling overtime,” Chief Ellerbe said. “Very quietly, we’ve modernized the Department. I have no regrets.”
Chief Ellerbe’s proposals, like one to drastically realign paramedic coverage during overnight hours and another to change firefighters’ schedules from 24-hour to 12-hour shifts, languished as questions mounted politically and operationally about their effectiveness. The plans are unlikely to be reconsidered any time soon, Mr. Wells said.
“That needs to be put on hold until there is a new permanent chief and a new day between labor and management,” Mr. Wells said.
Mr. Smith said the union is happy to work with Chief Jones but that members are advocating for a national search for a permanent replacement.
“It’s a shame that it’s ended this way, but I’m glad this is over,” Mr. Smith said of Chief Ellerbe’s announcement. “There’s a lot of work to be done to fix the department.”