News & Politics

DC Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe to Retire After Three Bumpy Years

A guide to the rough term of one of the District's most controversial public officials.

Photograph by Flickr user tyrab77.

Last night, DC Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe announced his plans to retire July 2 after a three-and-half-year run as one of the District’s most embattled public officials. Ellerbe, 54, took over the department in January 2011, and since then has been a constant target of criticism and source of controversy about how well the District government keeps its citizens safe. A handy guide to Ellerbe and the messes that surrounded him:

How long was he with the DC Fire Department?

Ellerbe joined 1982 spent more than 30 years with the fire department, except for 18 months in 2009 and 2010 when he worked in Sarasota, Florida until coming back after being tapped by Mayor Vince Gray. In a statement yesterday, Gray called Ellerbe’s term “commendable,” but the public record suggests otherwise.

Why was he controversial?

From the start, Ellerbe was openly challenged by the department’s 2,000 rank-and-file employees, who frequently complained about an ambulance and fire truck fleet that was woefully out of date. The mechanical problems became front-page fodder last summer when an ambulance responding to a call in Southeast burst into flames. Shortly afterward, an ambulance broke down in the middle of a presidential motorcade.

What else went wrong during Ellerbe’s term?

A lot. Ellerbe’s fire department was embarassed by slow response times, and constant labor disagreements over compensation and shift scheduling. During his tenure, after the number of ambulances not in the shop dipped as low as 39. After being hammered by bad press, Ellerbe ordered the purchase of 30 new ambulances last year forcing the District to contract with private ambulances or get assists from neighboring jurisdictions, but the added ambulances did little to repair the department’s image.

Did he have anything to do with the guy who died across the street from a Northeast DC fire station?

Not directly, but when Medric “Cecil” Mills, an elderly city parks employee who suffered a heart attack across the street from a fire station on Rhode Island Avenue, Northeast, and later died despite his daughter’s cries for help, his leadership was tarnished further. Mills’s death was just as big a scandal for the department’s rank-and-file, and Ellerbe tried to delay the sudden retirement of the lieutenant who was in command when Mills died.

Did Vince Gray fire Ellerbe?

According to the Washington Post, which broke the news about Ellerbe’s retirement, he says he is not being pushed out. But during a February mayoral debate, Gray was the only one out of eight Democratic candidates who praised Ellerbe’s performance. The other seven, including eventual Democratic nominee Muriel Bowser, said they would boot him. Bowser’s general-election rival David Catania has said the same.

What happens next?

“It’s been very hard to manage the agency,” DC Council member Tommy Wells, who has oversight of the fire department, tells Washingtonian. “There’s been such a battle between [labor and management].”

Ed Smith, the president of the union that represents most DC firefighters, told WNEW the department was close to paralysis under Ellerbe and that he wants the rank-and-file to have a hand in picking the city’s next fire chief. Assistant Fire Chief Eugene Jones, a longtime veteran of the Prince George’s Fire Department who joined the DC department in November, will take over for the duration of Gray’s lame-duck period.

Ellerbe does take credit for a few things, like recruiting DC high school students and young veterans and upgrading run-down fire stations. “Very quietly, we’ve modernized the department,” he says.

Wells says he wants to “look ahead” now that Ellerbe is on his way out, but his prognosis of the fire department is still weak. He says Gray’s administration did not seek adequate funding to improve the department as recommended by a recent audit. “We do not have a good accounting,” 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.