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D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe announced his retirement after three years at the helm of the troubled department. Ellerbe has faced criticism for everything from embarrassing equipment shortages to a sour relationship with the firefighter’s union. Adding to scrutiny of his leadership was an incident in January in which a 77-year-old man collapsed and died across from a firehouse whose staff refused help. We look at Chief Ellerbe’s tenure and what’s next for the department.
- Peter Hermann Reporter, Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, how slots revenues have revived horse racing in Maryland and California Chrome's Maryland pedigree. But first, after three years at the helm, D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe announced his retirement from the department. It was not a smooth tenure. The chief took heat for everything from equipment and staffing shortages to a sour relationship with the firefighter's union.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut he faced a barrage of criticism in January after a 77-year-old man suffering a heart attack was refused help at a nearby firehouse. The man later died. The incident sparked calls for the fire chief to step down. Joining us to talk about Chief Ellerbe's departure and what's next for the department is Peter Hermann. He is a reporter for the Washington Post. Peter Hermann, thank you for joining us.
MR. PETER HERMANNThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAny idea what prompted the chief to talk to you first about his proposed retirement?
HERMANNYou know, he also talked to a television station. And I don't really know. I mean one of the strategies of doing that and setting an embargo, of course, is to try to get your side out without giving the reporter a chance to talk to other people beforehand, because that would be breaking the embargo. So that's one of the consideration that we have to make. And I'm sure that was -- played a role in the way they set the announcement up.
NNAMDIWell, in fairness to the chief, let's get his side out first. Why now? And was he in fact asked to step down?
HERMANNHe says he was not asked to step down and he says he did not offer his resignation. However, both candidates for mayor have said they would not retain him as chief when they -- whoever wins in January. And so he was clearly going to be out of the job in a number of months. He says he chose to step down now because he wanted to give the interim chief a chance to basically use these few months to apply for the job.
NNAMDIAnd who is the interim chief?
HERMANNEugene Jones, who is a deputy chief from -- he was named about a year ago or 18 months ago and spent his career in Prince George's County, though he grew up in Washington. Our guest is Peter Hermann. He's a reporter for the Washington Post. We're talking about the decision of D.C.'s Fire and EMS Chief Kenneth Ellerbe to step down. Taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What do you think of Chief Ellerbe's tenure as D.C.'s fire chief? 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to email@example.com. Peter, Chief Ellerbe has been criticized since the start of his tenure. What are some of the issues that came up around his leadership style?
HERMANNI think a lot of his critics accused him of being very autocratic and not very open to criticism. He was accused a lot of retaliation or retaliating against people. Whether that's true or not, we don't know. But those were the accusations that have been made. Certainly there's a much different persona that he projects in public than is described -- than his private side is described as. You know, overall, he had certainly a difficult job in terms of trying to move a department in a different direction, you know, away from fighting fires and more toward the medical services and trying to get -- cross-train firefighters as paramedics and paramedics as firefighters.
HERMANNBut more than that, it was I think the arguing over his tenure -- the discussion over his tenure comes whether a lot of the problems that surfaced were evidence of systemic issues or the faults of individual firefighters. And he repeatedly blamed faults of individuals and not wide problems -- wide-ranging problems in the fire department overall. And I think that became the biggest division between him and his critics, you know, such as the City Council Chairman, Phil Mendelson, and Chairman of the Public Safety Committee, Tommy Wells.
NNAMDIYou raise a number of issues there. Chief Ellerbe was criticized for not taking responsibility for issues in the department, for blaming others. The Cecil Mills incident was only the most recent example. Can you talk a little bit about that? Remind people about what happened during that incident.
HERMANNSure. Mr. Mills was a 77 year old who actually still worked for the D.C. Department of Public Works. He suffered a heart attack across the street from a fire station on Rhode Island Avenue. His daughter was with him. Bystanders rushed to the fire station directly across the street and were told by a cadet that they could not respond until someone called 911. There was a lot of -- it's come out -- there's been a lot of opinion about what happened in that fire house and whether the fire lieutenant was properly notified.
HERMANNBut there also were issues with a firefighter who is accused by the department of, instead of rushing to help Mr. Mills, retiring to his bunk with a book to study for a promotional exam. In the end, Mr. Mills died. He was delayed treatment by about 20 minutes. And an ambulance only came when a D.C. police officer flagged one down that was passing on the street.
NNAMDIAny other issues of -- in which the chief was, again, criticized for not taking responsibility in that particular issue, which was, I guess, the most highly publicized issue, the death of Mr. Mills. But...
HERMANNThat one was. But about a year before that, in New Year's in 2013, a man named Durand Ford also died of a heart attack. His ambulance was delayed by about 20 to -- about a little over 30 minutes. And it turned out that more than 100 firefighters had called out sick that day. There was accusations by the chief and other city officials that it might have been an organized sick-out. The fire union denied that and said it was evidence that the fire department is overtaxed and overwhelmed. Nevertheless, that was the -- that was one of the earlier incidents.
NNAMDIYou just indicated that there has clearly been bad blood between Fire Chief Ellerbe and the firefighters in general and the firefighters' union in particular. What were some of the issues there?
HERMANNThe issues there, again, are the tension over the way that the chief wanted to implement the reforms of cross training paramedics as firefighters and firefighters as paramedics. Two proposals that the fire chief had were met with sort of disdain. One of -- one crucial one was the chief wants to change the hours that the firefighters work, essentially moving away from having -- working a certain number of days and a certain number of days, to shifts that are move spread out. And the second one was the redeployment of ambulances around the city, which on the surface makes sense.
HERMANNThe chief wants to put more ambulances and more advanced-life-support vehicles on the streets when calls are the highest -- when demand for them are at the highest. But in order to do that, his first proposal would have cut advanced life support altogether during certain hours overnight, which was too frightening a scenario for many on the City Council and in the union. His second proposal was to keep the shifts, add more ambulances, but then surprised everybody by proposing the only way to do this was to close the fire station in Shaw. That didn't go over very well either. So both of those proposals right now are sort of stuck.
NNAMDIThere are however both cultural and racial issues that are undercurrents to some of the problems that the chief was having with firefighters and with the union. After all, this is a department that is still over 60 percent white. It's never been a majority black department. And it's in a city that, at least used to be, a majority -- a heavily majority black city. Now not so much, maybe just 50 percent. Only 25 to 30 percent of those firefighters actually live in the City of Washington. And going back, oh, 30 or 40 years, there's been a history of racial tension, has there not?
HERMANNYes. And that's an issue that is definitely an undercurrent in all of this. Fire departments in Washington and in many other cities have always been very heavily based and relying on tradition. And they don't want to -- change comes very slowly. So change both in shaking up the idea that we're now going to do more medical calls than fire calls is a big change. Changing the shift schedule is something that is big. And the undercurrent in all of this is that a black leader is upending the lifestyles of many white firefighters.
HERMANNAnd that -- while that hasn't risen as an issue lately, it is definitely an undercurrent that runs through this. And if you start digging deep, you'll hear a lot of people saying that that's really what is at the root of all of this.
NNAMDIThe professional, cultural tension, however, has to do with the fact that this is a department that was built essentially to fight fires and now finds that some 85 percent of its calls are medical in nature. You have a group of individuals, many of whom thought of this job as a job of fighting fire. And so trying to make the switch to a department that has the majority of its work involving medical calls has been an ongoing problem, has it not?
HERMANNIt has. But it works the other way too. The department has a shortage of paramedics.
HERMANNAnd it has been very difficult for the fire department to hire paramedics and then tell them you also have to fight fires. There are probably more firefighters who are willing to be trained as paramedics than there are paramedics who are also willing to run into burning buildings. So that's been a problem. It's been a mandate to hire people who want to be cross trained. And for a number -- or for over two years, one of the biggest issues that Chief Ellerbe faced was a dearth of paramedics. And it was an issue of why there wasn't enough advance-life-support units on the street.
HERMANNIt became an issue in sort of response times. And Chief Ellerbe got criticized up and down in front of the Council for being unable to, at times, even say how many paramedics he had in the department and how many were needed. So he did recently hire 22 paramedics, some of which under the agreement that they do not have to be cross trained. Which then led to more criticism about whether the very idea of trying to merge these two entities was even, you know, was no longer part of the long-term plan.
NNAMDIHere is Gloria, in Washington D.C. Gloria, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GLORIAThank you. Everything that I hear and read tells me that this chief should have been fired a long time ago. And I don't understand why he's allowed to retire at this point, with what I assume is a pretty significant retirement income.
NNAMDIWell, he's been in the fire department for some 31 years. But, Peter Hermann, Gloria does raise a valid question. Why do you think Mayor Gray kept him on, despite the problems?
HERMANNI -- we've never really gotten a detailed answer on that. The only thing I can think of is that he believed that the chief was moving the department in the right direction and that the problems that were coming up were, in large part, were in many ways evidence of some of the people in the department who did -- who were reluctant to go through with that change, or reluctant to, you know, go through with the transformation that the chief was trying to make. And whether they were openly fighting back or doing it more subtly, some of the problems were a result of that. So he -- the chief was willing to stick by the person who, at the very least, you know, was carrying through on that philosophy.
NNAMDIWell, I mean...
HERMANNSo the chief did complain that, you know, the firefighters were going on medical calls in fire engines. You know, he thought they were responding slower to medical calls than they were to fires. He would often say, when there's a fire you should see how fast they move. So whether that is a deliberate attempt to slow things down and fight against having to, you know, go on medical runs or whether it was just because they would rather go to fires than medical runs, is another -- you know, is an open question.
NNAMDIWell, peering into the future, the interim leaders you mentioned is Assistant Chief Eugene Jones. He's a native Washingtonian. He worked for the Prince George's County fire EMS before joining the district's department 18 months ago. What kind of reputation does he have?
HERMANNFrom what we've heard it's -- and we haven't done a full background check on him yet, but from what we've heard he's got a very good reputation in Prince George's County. He grew up in Washington and so far we haven't seen any problems. But, you know, it's different when you're at the top. So we'll see how his first few months go.
NNAMDIHere's Marcus in Washington, D.C. Marcus, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARCUSHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. My brother was a person who was murdered eight years ago and which lead a lot to the charges...
NNAMDIYeah, this is Marcus Rosenthal.
MARCUSIt is indeed. And, in fact, I'm sitting right outside your building right now because I was in the neighborhood. But I want to just land on a couple things. I mean, I think people are missing kind of some of the things that are going on here. And I don't quite understand exactly all the problems that have happened since Chief Ellerbe took over...
NNAMDIWe should point out that it was the murder of Mr. Rosenthal's brother that led to the...
NNAMDII'm sorry, that led to the major changes in fire department, especially EMS policy. But go ahead, please.
MARCUSYes. And anyway, I just wanted to say that what impressed me about Chief Ellerbe when he came in was that he's the first person in that department who has said that this used to be a fire department that also did medical calls. And it's now a medical department that also does fires. And it's absolutely true. And the biggest problem in all the things that have been going on, from my perspective, is that the culture of indifference, as the inspector general called it in his report about what happened to my brother, hasn't changed enough in that department.
MARCUSAnd I don't know that all of the problems that have gone on, including Mr. Mills, which I just feel so horrible about, can be laid at the chief's door. You know, what was it that brought -- that anybody in that fire department could think that it was okay to do what they did with Mr. Mills? And I just don't understand it. And then when the chief actually tried to do something about it, you know, the rules are set in such a way that he couldn't -- he wasn't able to act. Now is this his fault, this case, or is this the city council's fault for allowing the rules to be this way, or is it the union's fault for demanding that the rules be this way that allow that lieutenant to retire?
MARCUSSome think to say to the -- I can -- the woman who just called in a minute ago saying why is the chief allowed to retire? He's had an honorable job. You know, he's done his job well, at least the bet of his ability. I might disagree with some of the things he's done, but at least, you know, he's worked hard. He didn't not go save somebody who was dying across the street. And to allow that lieutenant to retire was just, you know, just wrong. And it was that way because they were following the rules. It wasn't because the chief didn't try to do -- the fire chief didn't try to do anything about it.
MARCUSAnd, I don't know -- and you know, the whole thing about the schedule. I mean, you know, these guys work one day on 24 hours on and then they get three days off. There are four full shifts in that department. It's one of the few in the country that has four full shifts. And what the chief wants to do -- wanted to do, I think, is -- and I have some disagreements with how he wanted to do it -- but cutting back to 12-hour shifts would've allowed you to cut back to three full shifts. And the only reason that fourth shift was put in -- let me say one thing -- the only reason that fourth shift was put in was to integrate the department. And that's -- and they're now under no court order to do that. So, yeah, that's my two bits.
NNAMDIMarcus Rosenbaum, thank you so much for your call. Marcus Rosenbaum's brother David Rosenbaum, who was a New York Times editor and reporter, was killed on January 6, 2006 in a robbery and attack. And as I said earlier, that led to a number of the changes. Peter Hermann, Marcus Rosenbaum made a number of the points that key Chief Ellerbe may have wanted to make himself.
HERMANNAnd very articulately too.
NNAMDIYes, he did. So obviously even though the chief is moving on, the department still has a number of issues to deal with including the cultural one that we talked about of having people who are both fire fighters and EMS technicians in the same departments and the same stations.
HERMANNRight. I mean, that's going to -- in the -- I mean, well, the chief may be departing but the challenges certainly remain. And, you know, it'll be a matter of the next chief to see if they can work with the union and the union can work with the chief and see if some of these issues can be worked out. I think everyone agrees -- or at least many people in the department certainly agree that cross training in -- that people, you know, in these mergers are necessary and are coming and are here. And it's a matter of how this completes that process.
NNAMDIExactly right. And we'll see how the interim chief works out. Peter Hermann is a reporter for the Washington Post. Peter, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, slots have been -- slots revenue has been reviving horse racing in Maryland. We'll talk about that. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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