Last summer, the District’s fire department was at a breaking point, literally.
Nearly three-quarters of the department’s ambulance fleet had to be pulled from the streets for repairs during a July heat wave, city officials ordered an investigation to determine whether sabotage by employees caused two medical units to catch fire, and a D.C. Council member called on Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe to resign amid questions about his ability to lead.
Fast-forward to July 2, the day interim Fire Chief Eugene Jones took command of the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services department. It’s been relatively quiet ever since.
Chief Jones, a former Prince George’s County fire chief, was brought on as an assistant chief eight months earlier and is only certain to oversee the agency through December, when Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s term comes to an end. With few exceptions, firefighters have framed his accession in the kindest of terms.
“The whole department has breathed a huge sigh of relief,” said Capt. Richard Sterne, who was demoted from the rank of battalion chief under Chief Ellerbe for refusing to impose harsher punishment on firefighters after a grateful resident left them two 12 packs of beer at a firehouse.
One of Chief Jones’ first moves after taking the reins was to reverse a contested transfer order that was widely seen as punitive and to officially promote firefighters who had been serving in acting positions, decisions that the firefighters’ union said started the labor-management relationship off on the right foot.
“Quick, decisive action on his part is a big credit to the morale going back up in the department,” said fire union chairman Ed Smith.
Relations between the union and former Chief Ellerbe, who oversaw the agency for three and a half years, were combative and communication strained.
Redeployment and staffing plans initiated by Chief Ellerbe were met with swift resistance from the union, which viewed the moves as attacks on members.
Firefighters complained that discipline often took the form of retaliation and that it was arbitrary and inconsistent. They say the climate has drastically changed.
“People still feel if you mess up there will be action taken,” said Lt. Keith Hicks, who spoke openly as Chief Jones toured his Columbia Heights fire house last month. “Now you don’t have people out there just looking for mistakes.”
The interim chief has also made a point to visit with employees at their firehouses and to reward them for doing good work.
“He’s stopping by firehouses on his way home and stopping and having dinner with the guys and gals,” Mr. Smith said. “He’s getting out there and recognizing the employees when they do these heroic deeds.”
Less than a month on the job, Chief Jones presented 11 firefighters with the bronze medal of valor for actions they took to rescue three people from a burning home in March. In early August, he stopped by Engine 22 in Northwest to acknowledge seven firefighters for successfully resuscitating a patient who had stopped breathing.
Chief Jones said the honors and awards weren’t necessarily meant to foster a peace accord, explaining that the practice of recognizing a job well done was just par for the course in Prince George’s County’s fire department — where he worked for 27 years.
“That’s the Prince George’s County way,” Chief Jones said. “Whatever it is that people do to help the citizens, we try to recognize them for doing that because the citizens need to know what we’re like, who we are. We’re helpers.”
Thus far, the interim chief acknowledges he’s only been able to visit about a third of the city’s 33 firehouses, but he says the visits have been invaluable as he continues to learn about the department.
“Most of the employees just want to know they’re heard,” Chief Jones said. “I don’t want to be in a position where a local or somebody else is telling me what employees feel. That feels uncomfortable to me. I’d rather know what employees feel by going out and talking to them myself.”
From employees, the interim chief said he’s gotten requests for more training in certain areas and heard concerns about how assignments are made and discipline doled out.
“He’s been very approachable. We’ve had him up to 2 o’clock in the morning drinking coffee and talking,” said Capt. Mark Baker, whose firehouse the chief recently visited. “He listens. What he does with that information, we’ll see.”
Chief Jones’ ascension hasn’t come without some skepticism.
Kenneth Lyons, president of the union that represents civilian paramedics in the department, said he worries under the interim leadership that the agency will backslide in the progress it has made to improve equality between fire and EMS employees.
“I found him to be really concerned about moving EMS forward and moving forward single-role providers,” said Mr. Lyons, referring to the civilian medics who are trained only in EMS. “I think he is extremely sincere, I just don’t know if he has the gravitas to force his subordinates to do what he wants them to do.”
Another sticking point that could beget poor relations between the medical and fire service sides, Mr. Lyons notes that firefighters have been allowed to resume wearing apparel marked “DCFD,” for the District of Columbia Fire Department — the agency’s name before it’s acronym was changed to “FEMS” to represent both sides of the service. Chief Ellerbe had worked aggressively to stamp out the DCFD label, a campaign that many considered an assault on the traditions of the department.
D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat who leads the council committee with oversight of the fire department, declined to comment on Chief Jones’ performance, saying it was too early to come to any conclusions about his leadership ability.
Rather than urging the interim chief to tackle long-entrenched agency problems, Mr. Lyons said he believes the Gray administration gave Chief Jones one order above all else: “Keep us out of the news.”
It hasn’t hurt Chief Jones that time is running out for the Gray administration to implement some of Chief Ellerbe’s more contentious proposals, such as radically altering the shifts firefighters work and removing paramedics from most ambulances during the overnight hours.
The chief has only once so far drawn headlines, when a fire department trial board announced the results of disciplinary hearings for firefighters who failed to aid a dying man who collapsed outside of their firehouse. The incident occurred in January under Chief Ellerbe, but the trial board’s decision — which Chief Jones criticized as not including serious enough punishment — was made public in August.
At the time of the announcement, Chief Jones said he’d like to revamp the disciplinary structure of the department to make sure it is both simple and fair, a decision the firefighters’ union supported.
“I had a contentious relationship with the union before in the department where I came from,” Chief Jones said. “So to hear we’re open to discussion and talking, that’s a breath of fresh air for me.”
As to whether firefighters would welcome Chief Jones as the permanent fire chief when a new mayor takes office, employees say they haven’t seen enough of his vision to decide. But they say they’re open to the possibility.
“Is there a hope that he’s going to be the next fire chief if he stays?” Lt. Hicks, of Engine 11, said. “He’s winning our favor.”