Councilman Tommy Wells returns focus to D.C. fire department

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Local,DC,Eric P. Newcomer,Tommy Wells

A day before Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells officially announced he was running for mayor, he undertook what has become a reoccurring role: holding D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe's feet to the fire.

As Ellerbe has faced repeated trouble and a few calls for his resignation, Wells returned to the spotlight as chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety to scrutinize the department.

After a Prince George's County ambulance had to retrieve an injured District police officer, Wells voiced the public's outrage that a D.C. police officer couldn't get a D.C. ambulance and waited more than 15 minutes for help.

"I'm extremely concerned," Wells said on March 6. "Did we have to wait for an ambulance that we shouldn't have had to wait for?"

When it was revealed the department had relied on bad data to report the state of its vehicle fleet, Wells again was in a position to take up the issue in a hearing.

"I'm more concerned that I wasn't critical enough," Wells said on March 28. "We still have a lot of work to do."

While Ward 4 Councilwoman Muriel Bowser has been accused of placing too much focus on her own ward ahead of a mayoral campaign, Wells has found himself in the position to take up a major citywide concern as a ward councilman.

Bowser, who has highlighted her economic development projects in her campaign for mayor, and now Wells are the only declared candidates for mayor. Mayor Vincent Gray continues to demur on whether he will run again.

During Friday's hearing, Wells returned to many of the issues that have plagued the department.

He worried that the District would not have enough ambulances available between 1 and 7 a.m., as the department sought to shift ambulances from nonpeak late night hours to the rest of the day.

Lori Moore-Merrell, assistant to the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, told the D.C. Council that plan did not account for "overlapping or simultaneous calls."

"It is essential that this committee not allow" the department's plan to go forward, she said.

Wells also asked whether the department had enough staff, especially considering the overtime hours used by the department.

Ellerbe blamed the department's perennial overtime problems on a staff that shows up to work inconsistently.

"If they show up 44 percent of time, that creates a problem for us in terms of management," he said.

Summarizing his role, Wells said: "I'm trying to reassure the public, like you are, that we have the equipment that we need and the staffing that we need."

Concluding the hearing, Ellerbe said: "I think you've been very accurate and as laser-focused as we are."

enewcomer@washingtonexaminer.com

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