Loose Lips

Fire Proof

Mayor Vince Gray has not been shy about firing high-ranking officials when they become inconvenient. The mayor’s former chief of staff, Gerri Mason Hall, was gone after only three months, forced to take the fall for hiring little-supported-mayoral-candidate-turned-FBI-witness Sulaimon Brown. Former Department of Employment Services Director Rochelle Webb was shown the door a few months into her job after an uproar over her son getting hired by the city.

Millicent West, who played a very minor role in former Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr.’s theft of city funds, was fired as head of the city’s homeland security agency at the first sign of trouble. And Christophe Tulou was canned last year as head of the Department of the Environment for allegedly speaking out of turn about the city’s wastewater plans.

Last week, the latest department head to get the boot was Harold Pettigrew, who senior Gray administration officials say was fired for not moving fast enough to reform the Department of Small and Local Business Development.

But Gray’s tolerance for controversy or alleged ineptitude isn’t always so slight; he’ll stick with some department heads no matter how much heat they generate. Consider Fire Chief Ken Ellerbe, whose two-year tenure has been marked by steady controversies and who is likely to be the subject of intense questioning by the D.C. Council on Thursday.

Early on, Ellerbe pledged to be a “transformational” leader who would bring together a fractured fire department, improve relations with the firefighters union, and be a better community partner. But up until now, Ellerbe has made headlines for all the wrong reasons.

On Monday, the fire union voted 300 to 37 to express “no confidence” in Ellerbe, a symbolic move to protest what the union says is faulty leadership. The vote comes after a spate of high-profile mishaps by the fire department, including one incident where a police officer injured in a hit-and-run had to be transported to the hospital by an ambulance from Prince George’s County because the District had no ambulances available. After the department initially said that “the system worked,” Deputy Mayor Paul Quander released an investigation faulting seven lower-level fire department staffers.

Other recent problems include claims in media reports that fire cadets had been sexually harassed by their instructors (which Ellerbe says didn’t happen) and an arbitrator’s ruling that Ellerbe had retaliated against union president Ed Smith by unlawfully transferring him.

Ellerbe was causing PR problems even before he became chief: His past includes being accused by the American Civil Liberties Union of improper retaliation against a whistleblower as interim chief in 2000; benefitting from a bizarre arrangement first reported by the Washington Times in 2009 where he stayed on the city’s payroll even after he moved to Florida to be chief of Sarasota’s fire department; and being the subject of sexual harassment complaints in Sarasota.

It’s enough drama that some senior-level Gray administration officials have privately wondered to LL why Ellerbe has made it this far with such a controversy-averse mayor. But Gray and Ellerbe’s direct boss, Quander, have shown nothing but steadfast support for the chief. After the union vote, Quander released a statement saying he has “every confidence” in the chief.

And when Quander held a news conference a few weeks ago to announce that he was investigating why the department couldn’t provide an ambulance for the injured police officer, he made it clear he didn’t think Ellerbe was at fault: “Our citizens are well served by the men and women of this department and by this chief.”

Why is Ellerbe so well-protected? Perhaps it’s the personal connection: As Ellerbe recalls, he was only 14 years old when he first met Gray. Or maybe the mayor thinks the drama surrounding his fire chief isn’t Ellerbe’s fault.

In the view of Ellerbe’s supporters within the Gray administration, Ellerbe is the victim of union members who are irrationally opposed to his proposed shift changes. Those include shortening a firefighter’s shift from 24 hours to 12 hours, a move the chief says will make the department more efficient. But it will be disruptive to the many firefighters who live as far away as North Carolina, and Ellerbe’s allies think those firefighters are out for revenge. There’s also a largely unspoken racial aspect to the tension over Ellerbe, who is the African-American chief of a department with a history of discrimination. Outside the union hall Monday, a group of African-American current and retired firefighters held a rally to show support for Ellerbe.

And, according to his supporters, Ellerbe is also suffering from the effects of mismanagement in former Mayor Adrian Fenty’s administration, which left the department’s fleet in disarray. But recently, Ellerbe has made several missteps himself regarding the state of the department’s fleet.

Last month, Ellerbe’s staff submitted documents to a D.C. Council hearing grossly overstating the number of fire trucks and ambulances the department had in reserve. Several weeks later, Fox 5’s Paul Wagner aired a story voicing allegations from the union that the department’s count of its reserve fleet included fire trucks that had been sold or hadn’t been in operation for more than two years. Ellerbe responded by putting out a statement saying the union was right and thanking them for pointing out the mistakes. He blamed a retiring deputy chief.

But what Ellerbe’s statement didn’t say was that his department had received a scathing report from the city’s inspector general weeks earlier—the day before Ellerbe testified under oath at the hearing—highlighting the same problems. Ward 6 Councilmartyr Saint Tommy Wells, who heads the public safety committee that heard Ellerbe’s testimony, said the chief did not mention the IG’s findings or any significant problems with the fleet.

“I will give the chief an opportunity to explain,” says Wells, who will head Thursday’s committee hearing. “But it certainly does not look good.”

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how the IG’s report wasn’t at the forefront of Ellerbe’s mind. Its description of the dysfunction and incompetence surrounding the department’s fleet management system is more than a little frightening. If D.C. were to suffer “large-scale emergencies or mass casualty events,” the department would not have the reserve equipment needed to respond, the IG report found.

The IG found that the department did not have a clear idea of how many reserve vehicles it had ready to be deployed at any given time, despite a 2007 special order that detailed exactly how many of which kinds of vehicles it needed in reserve where. Spot checks of reserve vehicles often found that many weren’t working. When IG inspectors visited a warehouse where the special order dictated that 20 reserves should be stored, they found there were only seven reserve vehicles there. Only three of those vehicles could start.

The report also documented numerous problems and delays with the department’s repair shop. “One manager said it takes an entire day to have a tire changed,” the report says.

Just prior to the IG report being made public last week, Ellerbe put out a statement saying his department had “come a long way” in fixing the “apparatus deficit” he’d inherited by buying several new vehicles. After the IG report came out, Ellerbe said he’d also tasked a new deputy chief to get a handle on the reserve fleet and improve the repair shop.

That may be welcome news, but it doesn’t explain why the IG found the department’s fleet in such a sorry state more than two years after Ellerbe took command. Nor does it explain why Ellerbe wasn’t sounding the alarm about his fleet earlier.

Two months into his tenure as chief, Ellerbe laid out what he saw as the department’s top five problems and his suggested solutions in a document submitted to the Council. Ellerbe’s priorities didn’t include the fleet, but said the department needed to “improve community engagement” and “create workforce opportunities for local residents.” Ellerbe expressed the same priorities in 2012, while again not mentioning any issues with the fleet.

“My impression is, they were not forthcoming last year” about the fleet problems, said Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who used to oversee the Council’s public safety committee.

The union has long been sounding the alarm about the lack of usable reserves. Last year, LL wrote about those concerns and highlighted how Tower 3, the department’s lone tower truck that’s designated to rescue the president in the event of a fire at the White House, has been in and out of service for many years. The IG report found that Tower 3 had to go in for repairs 138 times, more than any other vehicle in the city’s fleet, in two and a half years.

The fire department didn’t respond to requests for comment on Ellerbe’s prior knowledge of fleet problems or about Tower 3. A report by outgoing Chief Dennis Rubin from October 2010 listed replacing Tower 3 as something that should be a top priority in fiscal 2011. But nearly two years later, says Dabney Hudson, second vice president of the fire union, the truck is broken and has been sitting at the fire department’s training academy for about a month. In the past year, Hudson says, the truck has been out of service for 125 days. CP

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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