Washington D.C. fire chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe said that he will step down July 2, ending a three-year term marked by consistent complaints of poor services that critics said endangered the lives of D.C. residents, reports The Washington Post.
His tenure was marred by a series of failures by firefighters and medical personnel, including delays in patient care and the death of an elderly man when cries for help from bystanders went ignored by firefighters inside a nearby fire station. The chief spent 31 years with the agency, leaving only in 2009 for 18 months to run a department in Florida.
In an interview Wednesday, Ellerbe said he had not been forced out, although it became clear that he would not survive in his job through the end of the year. For months, the city’s firefighters union has called for his ouster, as has D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who chairs the public safety committee. His most ardent supporter, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), lost his reelection bid in April, and the two leading candidates for Gray’s seat have said they would not retain the chief.
Ellerbe’s term was noted for a divisive dispute with the department’s labor union, with each side blaming the other for problems including poor fleet maintenance to slow response times. His critics as well as his supporters said the contentious relationship impeded reforms and led to a succession of negative headlines that prompted lawmakers to label the fire department a national embarrassment.
Ellerbe, 54, said he wants to give his interim successor time to run the department and possibly prove worthy of being permanently appointed to the post. A spokesman said the interim leader will be Assistant Chief Eugene Jones, a native Washingtonian who worked for the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department before joining the District’s department 18 months ago.
In February, Wells called for Ellerbe to resign, saying the department’s many problems were indicative of systemic issues and a dysfunctional culture that could not be blamed on a handful of bad firefighters.
Ellerbe, who grew up in the District and attended Calvin Coolidge High School and the University of the District of Columbia, said that in retirement, he plans to spend time with his 82-year-old father, who lives with him in Washington.
In overseeing a department of about 2,000 firefighters, paramedics and EMTs, Ellerbe listed a number of his successes: a new effort to hire paramedics after months of shortages, purchasing 30 new ambulances, and reining in spending and overtime. He said his biggest challenge was to complete a merger of firefighting and medical services to reflect today’s reality that most calls are for medical emergencies, not fires.
“This leadership has attempted some very bold changes,” Ellerbe said Wednesday, adding that he accepts the criticism as part of his job. “If you are willing to move an agency that has been stuck in tradition for over 200 years into a new environment, and you expect to fly under the radar, you are fooling yourself.”
The chief, who is paid $187,302 a year, denied that his dispute with the union jeopardized public safety, but he said it “may have amplified the incidents that occurred.” He blamed the media for highlighting what he said were five problem calls out of 160,000 annual emergency runs. “We expect the things that go wrong will be magnified and the things that go right will go largely unobserved,” he said, adding that firefighters may “feel discouraged about the behavior of the few that overshadowed all the good work of the many.”
But high-profile problems seemed to flare up consistently during Ellerbe’s tenure: An ambulance assigned to the presidential motorcade ran out of gas on the White House lawn; a police officer lay injured on the street waiting for help that arrived from a neighboring jurisdiction; and a firefighter retired to his bunk to read while a man was dying of a heart attack across the street.
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