News & Politics

UPDATE: Incident With DC Fire Chief Leads to Police Complaint

A run-in with a firefighter points to tensions with the union.

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,”
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

“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.