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

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.