Loose Lips

LL Reads Dennis Rubin’s D.C. Fire So You Don’t Have To

LL spent the weekend with D.C. Fire, the memoir/textbook from Adrian Fenty-era fire chief Dennis Rubin. What mysteries about public safety circa 2007-2010 would be revealed?

As it turned out, not much. Rubin's book, which is meant to teach fire officials how to deal with crises, totally avoids one of the biggest scandals of his term: the donation of a fire truck to a Dominican Republic town. Still, there is fun to be had with the book's unacknowledged subplots:

Dennis Rubin Loves Celebrities

Rubin's book doubles as a chance for Rubin to talk about the famous people he met on the job (Pope Benedict XVI, George W. Bush, then-Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley). "I was so fortunate to be the 25th fire chief of Washington, D.C.!" Rubin writes in one chapter, entitled "Amazing Times in D.C."

But Rubin's heart really belongs to Fenty, who is described alternately as "a class act" and a "great leader, mentor, and friend."

Rubin is less fond of attorney general and Fenty proxy Peter Nickles. While Rubin praises Nickles' legal ability, he spells Nickles' name as "Nickels"  throughout the book.

Dennis Rubin Was Not The Greatest Fire Chief

Rubin doesn't have the making of a great prose stylist—standing next to a dying firefighter, he remarks, "Very sad!" That would be fine, since he's supposed to be a firefighter, but after reading his book LL isn't convinced he's particularly good at that.

Rubin describes how he slept through phone calls about the 2007 Eastern Market fire, only realizing that the landmark had burned down when he was getting ready for work hours later. He botches the District's population, describing it as "over 800,000."

The best "What is Rubin thinking?" moment, though, comes the day after President Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration. Rubin had been promised a spot in Oprah Winfrey's studio audience for her broadcast from D.C., but two fires are holding him up. At one fire, Rubin encounters an elderly woman and a mentally handicapped man who eventually died from their injuries. Later, Rubin's stuck at a fire that's spreading between row houses. "At the rate we were going, I would likely miss my chance to be in Oprah's studio audience," Rubin moans.

Rest assured, reader, Rubin makes Oprah's taping, where he gives her a fire department shirt. "How great was that for branding DCFD to the world?" Rubin says.

Dennis Rubin Has Grudges

D.C. Fire also offers a chance for Rubin to set the record straight against his many antagonists. While Rubin doesn't name them, he opts for the practice, popular with U.S. Attorney Ron Machen, of describing a person with everything but their name. Villains include Harry Thomas Jr. (Rubin notes his imprisonment as "a side note"), media tipsters within his department ("internal terrorists"), and Washington City Paper ("one of the local off-brand newspapers").

But Rubin reserves his real ire for D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who chaired the public safety committee while Rubin ran the fire department. Mendelson's crimes, according to Rubin, include not showing up at fires and opposing a ban on fireworks (Rubin hates fireworks!).

Rubin fantasizes about Mendelson being called to testify in front of Congress about the District's broken fire hydrants. "The wind that he generated could have heated the Metrorail system for the entire system," Rubin writes, giving himself the last word in his feud with Mendelson... at least until the release of D.C. Mendo.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • Pete

    Nice review of the local off-brand fire chief.

  • S.E.

    A LEGEND in his "Own Mind!!!"

  • Jim

    LL: While I appreciate your work, I kind of want my 3 minutes back. Given what you wrote above, I'm not sure that this book was worth summarizing for your readers. :)

  • Will Sommer


    How else would you know if Rubin was able to meet Oprah?

  • http://STATter911.com Dave Statter


    As one of those who was described in the book with everything but their name (the reporter who had been a volunteer firefighter and had a reputation for being difficult for years), and having covered fire chiefs in DC over three decades, I would say your impression of DC Fire is very close to mine.

    Personally, I thought Dennis Rubin had a very good first year as fire chief and overall did some very good things in running the department. It isn't an easy job. But his problems began with the very thing you pointed out that The Rube omitted from the book, the donation of the fire truck and ambulance to Sosua. The initial council hearing where that was brought up was one of the strangest I've ever covered. Chief Rubin was extremely evasive with his answers and tried to prevent his command staff from answering questions. It set the tone for the rest of Rubin's time as chief where his main goal seemed to be settling scores for Fenty (mostly with Mendelson) and taking the hits when needed.

    To be fair, this book isn't meant for a general audience. I think the most useful part of it for firefighters (and the most interesting part for me) are his discussions on background checks for firefighters, the number of firefighters the Secret Service refused to clear to be part of the Inauguration and the details behind his cancelation of the cadet program. There is some useful information in those chapters and important topics for fire service leaders. They are a lot more chief like than what celebrities he was able to meet.

    There are a few other factual errors in the book besides DC's population. For example, the questions about being a white fire chief that The Rube attributed to that difficult reporter during his initial press conference with Fenty didn't come from that reporter. And, in fact, the whole topic of his race was brought up the night before in a Washington Post article.

    It should be noted that Dennis Rubin has a lot of loyal supporters in the department who were sorry to see him go. Many are people I have a great deal of respect for.

    As for how his time as chief will be judged, based on what I've been reading in the news, the best thing that has happened to Dennis Rubin's reputation is the administration currently running the department.

    Dave Statter

  • Inside looking in

    Oh Dave Statter you so hit the nail on the head. That bama was all about self promotion. Oh yes his clique misses him so dearly. The same ones who are crying foul now, you didn't hear a peep from them when Rubin and his crew were the long arm of the law.

  • Shane

    Chief Rubin may have not been the best Chief that DC Fire Dept has had but I can assure you he isn't the worst. He made better decisions and looked out for his employees a lot more than the fool that is currently administrator of DCFEMS.

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  • Cortez Lawrence

    Let me preface this by saying Dennis is a friend and colleague with whom I have shared platforms, conference podiums, and dinner tables with over the years. I have seen him close-up in his invigoration of other agencies. His management style is dramatic, can be costly, and usually effective. And he gets the workerbeefirefighters excited about their agency and their future.

    As to his "grade" regarding his tenure in DC. I suspect it will be pretty good. Using the axiom of public administration that "success often depends on following a stinker", Rubin may have exceeded that admonition on both ends of his administration.

  • dc only

    Maybe we should ask what happened during his tenure in Atlanta?

  • http://STATter911.com Dave Statter

    To my friend Cortez, you hit the nail on the head. The best thing Dennis Rubin could have done for his reputation is not to write a self-promoting book to settle grudges, but to let the headlines of today speak for his time as chief.

    I also think that the Sosua mini-scandal that The Rube failed to cover could have been extremely instructive for future fire chiefs. Rubin and the department were set up to be the fall guy for this mishief by those close Fenty. Unfortunately that incident and his battles with Mendelson set the tone for the rest of Rubin's time in office. Talking honestly about falling into that trap and being used that way could have been every bit as an enlightening as the parts of the book dealing with background checks, the cadet program and the secret service.

  • the checkered demon

    How about the way he tried to totally scapegoat DCWASA over the water pressure/hydrant functionality issues after the G'town Library and Adams Morgan fires? When the facts were in, it was clear that FEMS had exaggerated the extent of the problems,and that DCWASA had been documenting and communicating the problems that did exist to FEMS all along and been seeking an effective working relationship to resolve them... but the Rube was too petty to work with Jerry Johnson, whom he knew from their Richmond days.

  • Really?

    So what was his excuse/reason for cutting off the fire cadet program?

  • http://STATter911.com Dave Statter

    Really? As I recall, having read the book a few months ago, Rubin makes a compelling case on the poor vetting that had been done for those who were part of the cadet program and a poor oversight of the program. I believe he explains how a better run program was operating in Atlanta when he was there. It was an interesting perspective.

  • Will Sommer


    What Dave said. Rubin says the program was producing some DCFEMS employees with questionable backgrounds. "I refused to accept that our department could provide critical services for the nation's capital using potential felons."

  • Really?

    Wow! Poor vetting? Rubin is full of shit. First they pulled cadets from all of the DCPS schools. There was a requirement that applicants had to classified low-income which was a requirement from DOL. That changes when the white kid from Wilson couldn't get in. So then they pulled local funds and federal funds to make it work.

    All cadets had to be recent High School grads (no older then 21) with a certain GPA. (2.0 I believe) 3rd they had to pass a local and federal background checks (which were part of the budget). 4th they even hired tutors to assist those students who and they were one of the few programs that graduated the number of women that they did. They also had a rule that cadets couldn't be late more than once, and they were kicked out. The program was run extremely well. Rubin felt that the program needed changes he never mentioned it once when the MOU agreement was being negotiated.

    He lied and if the records are still available there is the proof. If a cadet had issues after the program like any other employee that one thing. But I know for a fact they NEVER came through with issues with their background.

  • Really?

    "I refused to accept that our department could provide critical services for the nation's capital using potential felons."

    Sounds like a George Zimmerman type quote

  • Inside looking in

    "He looked out for his employees a lot more" People who work in DCFEMS know what that quote means. If you were in the clique you were looked out for (by the way all administration had cliques). All the while Mayor Fenty offered L36 0%, 0%, and 0% in contract negotiations. Yep Rubin sure was looking out for his employees.

  • Asuka

    I don't understand the point of this article. Why review the book of a long-gone city official that few remember and none care about? Is it trying to say that Ellerbe, by comparison, is a good chief? Is it just a continuation of this opinion journal's long history of attacking the Fenty administration? or its equally long history of attempting to justify those attacks after the disaster that is Gray?

  • Inside looking in

    Here's another fact there were calls for a vote of no confidence in Rubin by members of IAFF L36 (mostly who were of color). Then L36 President Ray Sneed reasoned it would do no good because then Mayor Fenty was not going to push Rubin out. Fast forward L36 with Ray Sneed as president was a major player in getting then Council Chair Gray to run for Mayor against Fenty. All the while Council Chair Gray is hearing what is really transpiring inside DCFEMS from employees. Ray Sneed does not win reelection as L36 president, but Gray wins then Mayors race. Surely Rubin didn't think he was keeping his job. He'll in his mind he probably did.

  • Terry Miller

    IMO the Fire Chiefs are going from bad to worse. What next? I agree that Chief Ellerbe is a terrible Fire
    Chief. But who are you going to replace him with that
    will do any better. Even if you had a halfway decent Fire Chief to start, he wouldn't be able to function well because of all the in-fighting and back-stabbing around him. Folks who care about Fire/EMS need to be looking beyond getting rid of this particular FIre Chief, because they all leave one way or another.