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UPDATE: Incident With DC Fire Chief Leads to Police Complaint
A run-in with a firefighter points to tensions with the union. By Harry Jaffe
Comments () | Published August 19, 2013

When DC fire chief Kenneth Ellerbe showed up last week at the scene of an ambulance with flames shooting from its hood on Benning Road, he saw an on-duty firefighter with a smartphone who seemed as if he was taking photos of the truck ablaze.

“The fire chief accused him of taking pictures and snatched the phone out of his hand,” says Ed Smith, president of the DC Firefighters Association. “He gave it right back to him.”

The firefighter, who has not come forward, felt ill and went to the police and fire clinic for assistance. He filed a report, naming the chief and describing his actions. After the indent, the firefighter went on sick leave for stress. He declined to be interviewed.

“He’s having a hard time,” Smith says. “He’s scared, he’s nervous. He’s still deciding what to do.”

Ellerbe and the union have been at war for more than a year. The union voted “no confidence” in the chief in March. The union has charged him with depleting the number of paramedics and allowing emergency equipment to deteriorate. The ambulance that caught fire on Benning Road last Tuesday was the first of two ablaze that day.

City council members have questioned Ellerbe’s management, and Ward 3 council member Mary Cheh called for him to resign.

Ellerbe’s encounter with the firefighter over the ambulance fire fits the union’s narrative of a boss who’s out of touch with his troops.

“Instead of worrying about the safety of his people,” Ed Smith tells Washingtonian, “he confronted his people.”

Smith says he advised the firefighter to file a complaint with the department’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office.

“It needs to be investigated,” he says. “The department has a zero tolerance for these kinds of events in the work place. The details need to come out.”

Rumors circulated among police and firemen that the firefighter had filed assault charges against Ellerbe. None could be confirmed.

Says Smith: “He’s considered it. He’s still deciding what course to take.”

UPDATE 08/20/13: The fire department said Tuesday that its internal affairs section had started an “administrative investigation” at the request of Chief Ellerbe, according to deputy fire chief Milton Douglas, who heads internal affairs. The department has not received an official complaint from the firefighter involved in the incident, nor has a criminal complaint been filed with the DC Police.

UPDATE 08/21/13: The firefighter has filed a formal complaint against Chief Ellerbe with the police, according to the MPD. The police report became public Wednesday. Ellerbe told the Washington Post he merely asked to see the firefighter’s phone, to check whether he had taken photos of the burning ambulance. The firefighter told the union Ellerbe forcefully took the phone; the fireman has since gone on sick leave. The fire department’s internal affairs division is investigating the incident, at the chief’s request.

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  • Jake

    So give me more info. A career firefighter taking picture instead of suppressing the fire? The chief should fire the guy. As a taxpayer I have seen several incidents were firefighters aren't working and are instead talking on phones, taking photos for their Facebook accounts, and are otherwise joking around. I am paying taxes for people to work at incidents, not screw around.

  • HillmanDC

    Good Lord. Ellerbe is an idiot, and taking someones cellphone is childish and ridiculous.

    Ellerbe needs to go. He only has the job because he's a longtime buddy of Mayor Gray's.

    But the firefighter really 'felt ill' and is now on sick leave for stress?

    Really? That's absurd.

  • Ashamed

    Absurd? Really? Couldn't have been me. I would have fallen on the ground, asked for MPD & told them I'd been assaulted. I love how every time (and by every time, I mean every week) something happens, someone else is to blame. So much for leadership. I guess now I'll go assault someone on my next medical local.

  • panicoaldiscoteca

    Fire.Everyone.

  • Retired Ed

    This is out of control, you lead by example, if anyone leads by his examples the fire service in this country or any major company with this kind of leadership would be doomed!!!!!

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Posted at 04:52 PM/ET, 08/19/2013 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Blogs