In the last few weeks, D.C. Fire/EMS Chief Kenneth Ellerbe has withstood a hailstorm of criticism—questions about the department’s response times, a vote of no confidence by the fire fighters’ union and a pounding from council members who warned during a recent hearing that his job is on the line.

But, in an exclusive interview with the Afro, Ellerbe projected a confident, Teflon-like resistance to the pressures weighing in from multiple sides.

“It hasn’t impacted me at all,” Ellerbe said of the recent denunciations. “I don’t feel like I’ve been under pressure. It’s just the nature of the job. I knew what I was getting into when I accepted the job.”

As a 29-year veteran of the District’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department—he left in August 2009 to lead the fire and EMS agency in Sarasota County, Fla., before returning as D.C.’s fire chief in January 2011—Ellerbe is well acquainted with the demands placed on the department, as well its dismal reputation.

The department is one of the busiest in the nation. In 2011, for instance, FEMS’ 1,800 uniformed fire fighters, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics responded to more than 160,000 emergency incidents, including transporting about 100,000 people to local hospitals.

But public disapproval of the department’s performance has also been high. Criticism grew after Jan. 6, 2006, when retired New York Times reporter and editor David E. Rosenbaum died after emergency personnel failed to respond in a timely fashion to his 911 call, mistaking injuries he sustained in a mugging as signs of drunkenness.

And recent missteps have heightened that sentiment. The department has drawn fire for the alleged slow EMT response to a man who suffered a fatal heart attack in the early morning hours of Jan. 1, and the department’s alleged slow response to a police officer hit by a car on March 5. The officer was transported by an ambulance from Prince George’s County, as was the Jan. 1 heart attack victim, officials said.

Ellerbe blamed the New Year’s Day incident on 106 employees who called in sick, leaving the department in the lurch. Similarly, crews improperly ended their shifts early on March 5, hampering the department’s ability to respond to the fallen officer, he said.

Human error has also had a hand in the department’s faulty accounting of its fleet, Ellerbe said. A warning by the D.C. Fire Fighters Association and a February report by the D.C. Office of the Inspector General revealed that the reported number of fire engines in the reserve fleet was inaccurate—several were out of service and some had been decommissioned and even sold for scrap. The deputy director responsible for maintaining that information had failed to update the inventory, Ellerbe said, and that faulty data had served as the basis for budget projections and other assessments for more than a year. That employee has since been forcibly retired and a civilian will be hired to manage the fleet, he said.

Similarly, new guidelines to stop people from calling in sick on days with heavy call volume have been put in place, along with other changes meant to restore the public’s confidence in the department, Ellerbe said.

“We want the people in the city and the people in the region to be confident that A, we will protect them; B, we will take care of them; and C, they are our highest priority,” he said. “I think we’re moving in the right direction with changes that will allow us to respond to the needs of our growing community.”

One initiative includes changing firefighters’ schedules and redeploying emergency vehicles to better accommodate emergency calls during times of high volume. Other priorities include purchasing new vehicles with up-to-date equipment and new uniforms, hiring qualified personnel and renovating stations to include such features as geothermal heating, Ellerbe said.

“We’re trying to make a lot of innovative changes that will carry us well into the future,” he said, to meet the demands of the District’s ever-growing population—it grew by 13,000 last year—and 500,000 daily commuters and 1.5 million tourists who visit annually.

But the D.C. Fire Fighters Association opposes some of the changes and on March 25 voted no confidence in Ellerbe’s ability to lead the department and carry out its mission.

Union President Ed Smith called Ellerbe “inept” and “incompetent” with “a two-year record of failed leadership.”

But Ellerbe addressed the criticism with aplomb, saying such resistance is inevitable as change can cause trepidation.

“If I didn’t expect some resistance, I think I would only have been fooling myself,” he said.

But, Ellerbe added, he hopes some accord will be achieved as they negotiate a “fair” contract that, hopefully, includes a pay raise; and that the firefighters would get onboard as the changes begin to yield positive results.

Though plagued by detractors, Ellerbe has the support of the International Association of Progressive Black Fire Fighters (IAPBFF) and the mayor as he tries to turn around the beleaguered department.

“The mayor has been extremely supportive and I am committed to seeing this mission through so that his support would not go in vain,” he said.


Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO