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Protective gear sat in storage while D.C. firefighters burned

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Local,DC,Liz Farmer

Fire-resistant shirts designed to prevent burn injuries when a firefighter's outer uniform fails were sitting in storage last year when five District firefighters were injured during a two-alarm blaze.

 

The reason the shirts were in storage rather than on firefighters? The clothing didn't have the correct D.C. Fire and Emergency Services logo, Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe testified at a hearing Wednesday. Ellerbe added that the order was placed before he started his job last January.

"There were held because of the logo and it's a polo shirt [so it's] not a uniform shirt," Ellerbe said at a D.C. Council Judiciary Committee performance hearing.

Photos taken last month and obtained by The Washington Examiner show the uniforms still sitting in storage, and sources say they are from an order placed in October 2010 to be filled by January 2011. In total, 1,750 shirts costing the city $68,250 have been sitting in boxes for more than a year, according to a source who has the procurement order and spoke to The Examiner on condition of anonymity.

Ed Smith, president of the local firefighters union, told The Examiner that the shirts could have made a difference last year for five men who were sent to the hospital during last April's house fire at 48th Place Northeast in the Deanwood neighborhood.

Three of the men were in serious condition and a fourth was in critical condition after a roof collapsed on them, creating a superheated chamber. None of the men had the fire-resistant gear on underneath their uniforms, Smith said.

"[The polos] certainly would have offered better protection for those men than they did sitting on a shelf because of a logo issue," he said.

At-Large Councilman and Committee Chairman Phil Mendelson, chastised Ellerbe for not telling him about the uniforms.

"Every time I've asked -- up to this week -- you've said there were none," he said, adding later, "This has been a big rumor and there's been a lot of complaints about it."

All five firefighters are now back on duty, but the department still waits for bidding to close on a new request for fire-resistant shirts. The earliest the shirts could arrive to firehouses would be in mid-June, according to testimony.

A spokesman for Ellerbe did not respond to a request for comment before deadline on Wednesday.

lfarmer@washingtonexaminer.com

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