News & Politics

DC Officials Say Embattled Fire Chief Is Doing a ‘Good Job’ as Firefighter Lodges Complaint

The long-running feud between DC's fire chief and rank-and-file firefighters isn't cooling off any time soon, and some are starting to question who's running the show.

An ambulance caught fire Aug. 13 in Southeast DC. Photograph courtesy IAFF36.

A DC firefighter lodged a formal complaint against fire chief Kenneth Ellerbe today in connection with an incident last week in which Ellerbe allegedly grabbed the firefighter’s cellphone on the scene of an ambulance fire in Southeast DC last week.

But at a news conference Wednesday morning, Ellerbe’s bosses, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul Quander and Mayor Vince Gray, repeated their support him in the wake of two ambulances catching fire on the same day as well as a summer full of other equipment breakdowns.

“The chief is doing a good job,” Quander told reporters. “You have incidents that at any other time would not matter but get raised to a certain level.”

Some of those other incidents include another ambulance breaking down while assigned to President Obama’s motorcade and four ambulances being found to have been patched up using no-parking signs in lieu of heat shields under the hood. (Quander told Washington City Paper the repairs were done by the Department of Public Works.) In May, an ambulance transporting a carjacking suspect who had been shot in the head broke down in the middle of Interstate 295. And last month, faulty air conditioning systems that docked nearly 60 city ambulances during a heat wave forced officials to hire private ambulances to work Washington Nationals games.

At today’s mayoral press briefing, Quander said the Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services is about to take possession of the first of 30 new ambulances it has on order, but even with new additions to a dilapidated fleet, the department’s rank-and-file employees are no less dissatisfied.

“I don’t think anyone’s handling the fire department situation,” says Dabney Hudson, the second vice president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 36, the union that represents most of the fire department’s staff. “We brought this up two-and-a-half years ago.”

One thing that is clear from the latest salvos in the long-running spat between firefighters and DC leaders is that Quander is losing patience with devoting so much of is attention to the fire department. At today’s press briefing, NBC4 reporter Tom Sherwood referred to the deputy mayor as “Chief Quander” in a question for Gray.

Sherwood’s joke did not take with the mayor. “Not funny, OK?” Gray replied.

But Quander also oversees the Metropolitan Police Department, which last week he directed to open an investigation into the recent ambulance fires after saying he wanted to determine that the blazes were not caused by anything “untoward.” An internal fire department investigation last week ruled that the fires were accidental, while the MPD inquiry is still ongoing, much to the firefighter union’s chagrin.

“They’re immediately pointing fingers,” Hudson says of Ellerbe, Quander, and Gray. “This investigation was done by qualified professionals.” Hudson also suggests that MPD’s arson detectives are not as qualified as firefighters in determining the cause of the ambulance conflagrations.

Hudson also complains that this morning, the department’s entire night shift was ordered to stay on duty an extra hour until 8 a.m. Department spokesman Timothy Wilson says that nearly 30 department members took unscheduled absences this morning which led to their colleagues being held over.

“By 8 a.m., those staffing voids were filled,” he says.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.