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The District’s newly appointed Fire and EMS Chief, Kenneth Ellerbe, promised to revamp the leadership of the 2,200 member department. One of his first challenges is to ease the longstanding tension between the fire and EMS services, including a decade-long effort to unite them under a single name and logo.
- Kenneth Ellerbe Chief, D.C. Fire and EMS Department (FEMS)
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, falling enrollments at Catholic schools in our region, but first, what's in a name. When you call 911 because there's been a crash and there's a car on fire, do you really care what logo the emergency personnel have on their uniforms? For some, it does matter a lot. The fire and emergency medical services have been officially merged for three years now, but the uniforms and logos tell a different story. Many trucks and uniforms still carry just the DCFD logo for D.C. Fire Department with no mention of EMS service.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhen the newly appointed fire and EMS chief ordered all uniforms and trucks to carry one logo, he found out just how much the name matters to some in the department, and he came up against what some say are cultural differences that can't be easily bridged with a name. Joining us to discuss all of this is Kenneth Ellerbe. He is chief of the District's fire and EMS department. Chief Ellerbe, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. KENNETH ELLERBEWell, thank you for having me.
NNAMDIIn January, Mayor Vincent Gray appointed you to lead the 2,200 members of the fire and EMS service. You were a longtime veteran of the D.C. force, but in 2009, you took the job of chief of the Sarasota County Fire EMS Department in Florida. What made you want to return to D.C.?
ELLERBEWell, D.C. is my home, and I think that Vincent Gray is going to be an excellent mayor. He's already an excellent mayor, and I believe in the same ideals and interests in the community that he has, so I decided to come back.
NNAMDIWhen you went to Sarasota, Fla., why did you go there in the first place, because you felt you could get experience that you could not at the time get here?
ELLERBEYes, sir. Absolutely. D.C. already had a fire chief, and my goal throughout my career has been to be the fire chief, either here in D.C. or somewhere else. When the opportunity was presented to go there on a personnel exchange agreement to acquire the experience, I availed myself of that opportunity.
NNAMDIThe fire and EMS services or emergency medical service officially merged in 2008. What was the idea behind the merger?
ELLERBEActually, it's always -- I mean, it's been merged for much longer than that. I think that we started identifying the fire and EMS department as one because the employees who represent the EMS bureau at the time -- represented the EMS bureau at the time felt disenfranchised. I mean, they want the same recognition that the firefighters got, and we thought in administration that it was a good idea to bring the two together under one logo.
NNAMDIHow did that change the training for fire and EMS personnel?
ELLERBEWell, in 1987, the firefighter job description for the first time contained EMT requirements as well, and it was the beginning of dual-role cross training. So incorporating the EMS or prehospital care component to the fire department really allows us to provide more service through more employees to the community.
NNAMDIDo both services learn both jobs?
ELLERBEFor the most part, both services learn both jobs. Now, we are only hiring fire- and EMT-trained personnel.
NNAMDIThe initiative that's gotten the most attention has to do with the name and logo of the department. You recently proposed requiring the new name and logo on every uniform and truck. What were you hoping to do?
ELLERBEWell, I was hoping to respond to the EMS Task Force recommendations which looks at a lot of the diversity in our department. It also looks at some of the divisions or divisive forces in our department. When the EMS Task Force report was released, one of their recommendations was to no longer identify our members by just DCFD and to actually stop using that as a logo and to incorporate the EMS component of our department in our logo.
NNAMDIThere were some objections to that. There was a lot of backlash to the proposal. Local 36 of the D.C. Firefighters Association say it was not consulted. As a result of this, you decided to delay implementation for, I think, 120 days.
ELLERBEYeah. That's a cooling-off period basically to consider some alternative designs that will incorporate fire and EMS in the design. I have made a pledge to incorporate -- or at least include Local 3721, which represents the EMS employees, and local 36 and decisions that affect the membership. And to their credit, they called me on the fact that I had declined to call. I didn't decline. I just neglected to call them and made a later call. Then, we just decided to wait and try to figure out how to get a logo that actually satisfies all our employees and the community that we serve.
NNAMDIKenneth Ellerbe is chief of the District's fire and EMS department, FEMS. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you work for the fire and EMS service? What do you think of a single logo for the District's department? 800-433-8850. You can also e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. It's clear, Chief Ellerbe, that this is about more than a logo. What is the history of the relationship between the two services? From time to time, it seems to have been fraught with tension.
NNAMDIThere is a considerable amount of tension between the two groups of members. A lot of it stems from the historical perspective of how the EAB or the Emergency Ambulance Bureau was created versus how the firefighter union developed. The firefighters union was in place a lot longer than the Local 3721, or the union that represents EMS employees. They have different benefits. They have different salary structure, and a lot of times when you have two employees who sit in the same unit, one who's being represented by one union, one being represented by another union and it appears that the benefits are different, it does create a lot of tension. And part of the responsibility that we have now is to try to alleviate some of that tension by combining our forces and giving them at least similar pay structures and benefits.
NNAMDISome have called it a bureaucratic decision that tries to change the culture of the fire department. Is that in fact the goal?
ELLERBEPart of the goal is to address the culture and to start to make a cultural shift. Over 80 percent of the work that most departments across the country do is prehospital care, and to have that much work heaped upon one particular aspect of a job or a responsibility without the recognition that goes along with, it can't -- could tend to make the members feel like they weren't appreciated or disenfranchised. And one of the things we want to do is make sure that all of our employees feel like they're appreciated, and the work that they had done -- they do is respected by the community and the members.
NNAMDICan you give us a sense of what fire and EMS workers do? I think people may not know how many types of calls fire and EMS respond to, that if a tent blows down on the mall, fire and EMS are called. If a kayaker is lost in the Potomac, fire and EMS respond. Someone is hit by a Metro train, it's fire and EMS who show up.
ELLERBEYeah. And I want to add, you know, in keeping with the mayor's one city theme, which -- he has four basic priorities here, fiscal stability, quality education, jobs and economic development and safe communities. And the strange thing is, well, what's most apparent to me is that the fire and EMS department touches every one of those responsibilities. You know, the fiscal stability aspect basically talks about our budget and keeping a strong budget. Quality education, we have the opportunity to establish a cadet program where we can insert ourselves into D.C. public schools and bring some young deserving members into the department. When you talk about jobs and economic development, the fire department has 2,200 members. Twenty-five percent of those members live in Washington D.C.
ELLERBEIf we were to increase the number of people from Washington D.C. that work in the department, we'll be able to help create jobs and economic development. And, of course, when you talk about safe communities, the fire and EMS department along with corrections and the police department are the components of safe communities. We provide anything from icebreaking services on the Potomac, which a lot of people don't realize, to caring for people in their last stages of life and making sure they're transported from an assisted-living facility to the hospital. We run the whole gamut of creating a safe community.
NNAMDIIn fact, EMS or emergency medical services are actually the biggest role of the department. In terms of the number of calls, what's the breakdown between the two?
ELLERBEAbout -- between 80 and 85 percent of our calls are EMS, and the remainder of between -- about 15 percent, fire and other hazards.
NNAMDIHas the growing role of EMS services been part of the tension between the services?
ELLERBETo some degree. A lot of our older or more experienced or seasoned members, as I'd like to call them, have a history, a firefighting history. I remember when the fire department or fire and EMS department didn't even run medical calls. So I've been around 28 years, and there other members in the department who have been around just as long. It's been a slow transition. It's been one that's been somewhat resisted by the more aggressive firefighters in our department, but the reality is that this ship is going to have to turn. We have to respond to the needs of our community, and there are many more prehospital care emergencies than there are fire emergencies in our community.
NNAMDILet me see if I can put it in more colloquial terms. You and others who joined 28 years ago said, look, I joined this joint to be a firefighter. Now, you want me running around treating people who are with prehospital conditions. That's not why I came to this department. I'm a firefighter. Leave those EMS services and those EMS people away from me completely. Is that the tension we're talking about?
ELLERBEThat is some of the tension, and it's funny because some of our younger members feel the same way, but the reality is in these economic times, the job is the job or the profession is the profession, and it all leads to creating a safe community.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here is Paul in Indian Head, Md. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULOh, glad to be on the show. First-time caller. You got a great show going on, Kojo.
PAULAnd also Chief, congratulations and condolences on the job. I know sometimes it's a double-edge sword when you jump up in the (unintelligible).
NNAMDICongratulations and condolences. Go ahead, Paul.
PAULChief, a question. I know you're consolidating fire and EMS. It's -- I'm a 30-year retired firefighter. It's always, you know...
PAUL...a problem between EMS and firefighters, it seems across the board. But I had some friends that were at the Saint Elizabeth's Hospital Fire Department. And when the District took it over, it seemed they were classified under HHS or some other division, which kind of, you know, brought some bad taste in their mouths, for lack of a better term. Have you planned to address that, or how's that's going?
ELLERBEI don't even know if we -- if they still have a fire department over at Saint Elizabeth's. I think that building was closed down, and I think they're doing construction over there now, but you could always ask them to contact me. I didn't know they gone to HHS. That was quite a while ago. Wasn't that back in the '80s?
PAULYes, sir. And all of them converted to HHS. It's kind of, you know, they're firefighters, but they're not quite quality level. There are still some fire inspectors and things like that over there still. (unintelligible).
ELLERBEWould that have made them federal firefighters?
ELLERBEWould that have made them federal firefighters?
PAULWell, they would have been federal when they transferred over to the District...
PAUL...and they become District employees.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call, Paul. We're talking with the chief of the District's fire and EMS department, chief Kenneth Ellerbe. A former chief of the department, Adrian Thompson, who was originally tasked with merging the two divisions, now says it was a mistake. He said recently that the cultures are too different, and that they should be separate services. What do you say to those comments, and what in your view is the trend around the country?
ELLERBEWell, I'm not going to -- I wish Chief Thompson well, first of all, and I'm glad that I had the opportunity to watch him develop as a chief, and his perspective is different from mine.
NNAMDIBut you're not going to allow me to draw you into a fight with Chief Thompson.
NNAMDIIs that what you're saying here?
ELLERBEI refuse to fight with anybody.
ELLERBEBut the reality is -- and across the country, fire -- prehospital care is best provided, in my opinion, by the fire department or fire service in the area. We have a number of stations. We have 33 stations, and we can dispatch units from anywhere in the city, not to mention the fact that we have a capable, well-trained, intelligent firefighting force that is also able to provide prehospital care. That's 2,200 people we can put on the street, usually about 450 at a time, to provide care throughout the city.
ELLERBESome people do think that it would be better to establish a third service. But when you do that, you have some challenge -- managerial challenges that can be resolved through time, effort and perseverance when you have a strong management structure.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue our conversation with Kenneth Ellerbe. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your call. We still have a few lines open. The number is 800-433-8850. What do you think would help ease tensions between fire and EMS services and make for better cooperation? Call us at 800-433-8850. Or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Kenneth Ellerbe. He is chief of the District's Fire and EMS Department. Another one of the issues between the fire and EMS services seems to be a financial one. Most firefighters, apparently, buy their own uniforms, and the jackets can cost $100 or more. Is there money to help implement this?
ELLERBEWell, those are personal items that they purchase. We do provide them with shirts, pants and firefighting gear. And, sometimes, we provide them with jackets, exterior jackets. But I can't really comment on the personal items so -- they're not required to buy them. They're not required to put any logo on the back of them. And the only thing that we can control is what they do put on the back, if it's not in our order book, if it doesn't conform to regulations.
NNAMDISome firefighters also point out the 140 year history of the department. They say this is all about tradition, chief.
ELLERBEI understand that. And sometimes, the traditions that we embrace are only part of the tradition. The good thing about the present day is we have the ability to redirect what history is in the future, about what we do today. And what we're trying to do is establish a new tradition and one that will go on in the future.
NNAMDIHere is Ilana (sp?) in Silver Spring, Md. Ilana, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ILANAHi. Thank you. I wanna mention an incident that I felt illustrates one of the problems with the EMS service being under the hierarchy of the fire department.
NNAMDIGo right ahead.
ILANAI work -- okay. I work at a school -- can you hear me?
NNAMDIYes. Very well.
ILANAOkay. I -- I work at a school in the District, and there was an incident with a psychiatric emergency with a young child, a nine-year -- an eight-year old. And he had run off campus and the police had been called by one of the school staff members and they called the -- an ambulance and the work -- the ambulance personnel -- he turned out to be fine. They described themselves very clearly as firefighters, not EMTs. They were insistent on that. But they ended up being fine with the child and calmed him down.
ILANAHe sat in the ambulance for a while. What we were working on, they let us get into the ambulance with him to assess him. I was called on the scene. I'm a mental health professional at the school. And it was taking a while for this child to be able to give us enough of a guarantee that he was not going to harm himself, which was the criteria by which we would decide whether he needed to be transported to the hospital. Ideally, we would have called in the ChAMPS psychiatric emergency service for children, but that didn't happen just because the way the situation developed.
ILANAThey called -- because it was taking so long, they had to call their battalion chief, who came, and his approach was -- his orientation was clearly very, very different. And he was like decide now, you take him to the hospital or you're not taking him to the hospital. We got to get this ambulance out of here. And I felt that that pressure was very unhelpful and, perhaps, total lack of training in mental health emergencies.
NNAMDIDo you feel that the battalion chief -- you seem to be implying or maybe saying that the battalion chief, in your view, demonstrated a lack of sensitivity?
ILANAYes. I -- because he's a firefighter, and he, you know, the kinds of emergencies that his orientation entails is -- are completely different than a child's psychiatric emergency, which is why they have the -- the Mental Health Department has this ChAMPS psychiatric emergency service.
NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to have the chief respond because it's my understanding that he is undertaking a reorganization of command staff and the leadership of the department. Chief Ellerbe.
ELLERBEWell, first of all, I'm sorry that you had that bad experience. But almost all of our members are required to be trained as emergency medical technicians at the very minimum, and part of that training does include how to respond to and act on the scene where there may be the challenge that you referred to. I'd like to think that that was an isolated incident and, hopefully, does not really compel you to wanna see the EMS responsibilities removed from the fire department because I do believe that it adds a level of administration in management that you may not receive in terms of government intervention if it was separated.
NNAMDIThat reorganization of the command staff and leadership that I mentioned, it's my understanding that you want to focus on better communication and more transparency. Do you feel the department has suffered from problems there in the past?
ELLERBEI think that the department may have missed some opportunities to really get out in the community and share what our intention is, what our goals are and even talk about mistakes that we may have made to reassure the community that, A, we're aware of it and, B, we're focusing on making sure those types of things don't happen again. So we're redirecting our interest in -- out in community outreach as well as making ourselves available to the community.
NNAMDIOn now to Christie in Alexandria, Va. Christie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISTIEHi. And thank you for taking my call. I've only been in Alexandria about six years, and I moved here from California, where EMS and fire department are not aligned in the way they are here in Virginia and D.C. And I have a couple of questions. One is -- has to do with cost efficiencies for dispatching fire for medical calls. It seems to me that that's not an efficient distribution or use of resources. If a fire truck is dispatched to a medical emergency, it's not available to respond the fire call.
CHRISTIEAnd the cost of dispatching a fire truck and the labor cost of the whole crew that has to go along, it has to be much, much higher than dispatching simply an ambulance. And my other was more of a comment, and then I'll take your response off the air, is if doing it together, under the offices of the fire department is, in fact, creating conflict and affecting the teamwork that's required, no matter how the system is configured between fire department and EMS, but the current configuration is causing stress, trauma, status differences within the department, then it's clearly not working.
CHRISTIEAnd when EMS and fire are separate, they have a more collegial relationship. And I'm not sure the administrative level -- I mean, they could be co-housed. It's not like you have to build all new fire -- EMS spaces, but I...
NNAMDIWell, Christie, you've said a mouthful, and we're short on time, so allow me to have the chief respond.
ELLERBEWell, first of all, when you talk about cost efficiency in dispatching, I think, that our Office of Unified Communications is extremely cost efficient when they dispatch fire, police and -- for other emergencies from the same facility. And talk about a fire truck arriving on a scene when dispatched on a medical call, our concern is more for life safety and life preservation anything else. And many of our members who ride those fire trucks are equally trained or are trained at least as well as some members in the ambulance are. And if an ambulance is out of service or is out of position, then we'll send the fire truck. Our first and primary concern is life preservation.
ELLERBEThe third concern about the third service working in a fire station, we have found, so far, that it's much more collegial atmosphere in a station where you have firefighters, EMS employees and dual role trained employees all working together. I understand that the concern about the dissension that exists, but is not as prevalent as you might think. And once the bell goes off, and people are dispatched, everybody works together.
NNAMDIOn to Lee in Herndon, Va. Lee, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Lee, are you there? Lee used to be there. I'm gonna put Lee on hold while I ask the chief another question. And if when I come back, Lee, you're there, good for you. There's a lot of sensitivity, Chief Ellerbe, because the department apparently has not had a raise in five years. How is that affecting this conversation?
ELLERBEWell, it's making it a challenge. In fact, the last contract that was signed was one that I signed years ago. And I am committed to working with the union to see if we can't come to table and get a contract for membership. It's one of the things I'm committed to.
NNAMDIWe know salaries have been an issue. What this year's budget looking, like, in this economic -- time of economic hardship?
ELLERBEWe have experienced a slight challenge in our budget, but not anything that we can't overcome. We're being held at our 2011 budgetary expenditures. And the mayor was very gracious in not cutting public safety. We really appreciate that. We probably should live within our means and see if we can reduce some of our expenditure, particularly overtime, so that we can stretch our budget to make it last throughout...
NNAMDII was about to say about overtime. It's an issue from many fire and EMS departments. I know you dealt with that when you had it at Sarasota Fire and EMS. And it seems to be an issue here also.
ELLERBEA lot of overtime is trending down by about 70 percent right now. So it was an issue, and it may continue to be something that we keep on the radar, but we hope that it will be non-issue by the end of the fiscal year.
NNAMDIHere is Iris in Silver Spring, Md. Iris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
IRISLast December, I had to call an ambulance from a restaurant in Washington. I live in Silver Spring. And the care I received -- the fire truck came. I didn't really need a fire truck. But the care I received was above and beyond elementary care even for a heart patient, and I think it saved my life. The people wouldn't give me their names, so I couldn't write to them or thank them, but I was just pleased. I have had emergency services before for members of my family out in the suburbs, and I must say you've got such trained men, such a department there that I think it'd be a challenge to anyone.
NNAMDIIris, thank you very much for your call. Chief Ellerbe?
ELLERBEI wanna thank Iris as well. Like I said before, our employees are some of the best trained and most conscientious employees in the country. And you talk about responding over hundreds of thousands of calls a year. And maybe three or four that really make the news because of an outcome that we didn't we expect. That is -- this is a lot about the department and the membership.
NNAMDIAnd I'll see if Lee is available in Herndon, Va. Lee, are you there now? Nope?
LEEYes. Hi, Kojo.
NNAMDIGo right ahead, Lee.
LEEThank you. Hi, Chief. I just wanted to quickly voice my opinion. I firmly believe that EMS and fire fighting should be separated completely solely for the physical requirements required by the folks that do this work. And in 20 seconds or less, one of my best friends, 130-pound year old -- 130-pound woman that was an EMS worker in Florida, eventually had to join the fire department. They made her carry hoses and bust down doors and do all sorts of things. Four or five years later, her back is out and she's on disability. The physical requirement for EMS worker is different than the physical requirement for fire fighters. I'm sure...
NNAMDIOkay, Lee, as I said, we're running out of time very quickly. Allow me to have Chief Ellerbe respond.
ELLERBELee is correct in the sense that there are different physical requirements for the job. It's one of reasons why we encourage all of our members to remain physically fit. It's interesting we're talking about logos and t-shirts and tradition when there is a bill that's been proposed that we'll reduce retirement benefits for fire fighters and EMS employees, teachers and police officers. So that's something else -- that something we really should be focusing on. While we're focusing on T-shirts or while some people are focusing on simply T-shirts, I need to focus on retirement benefits, contracts, employees getting along. So the responsibilities that I have embraced -- well, one guy said condolences and congratulations at the same time.
ELLERBEThey're tremendous but it's a good group of people. It's a good department. It's a good city. You know, I appreciate all the support that we do receive from the mayor, the counselor, and the constituency.
NNAMDILee, I'm afraid we don't have any more time to respond to your call about issues of gender, size and the conditioning of people who are in Fire and EMS, maybe at a later conversation. Chief Ellerbe, thank you for joining us.
ELLERBEThank you. It's been a pleasure.
NNAMDIKenneth Ellerbe is chief of the District's Fire and EMS Department. We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, the challenges facing Catholic schools in the Washington area. We'll talk with the superintendent of schools of the Archdiocese of Washington. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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