D.C. firefighters set for confidence vote on chief

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The District's firefighters will stage a confidence vote Monday on Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe, setting up another high-profile showdown between rank-and-file workers and city leaders amid fresh revelations that the agency may not be ready for catastrophic emergencies.

"There's just no confidence in his ability to deliver a service to the public," said Edward Smith, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association. "There were numerous contributing factors."

But the nonbinding vote is unlikely to move District leaders, who have been forceful defenders of Ellerbe in recent weeks in the wake of a series of embarrassing incidents, including that a Maryland ambulance had to transport an injured D.C. police officer to the hospital because the city didn't have one available.

"We're trying to work to continue to improve the fire department, and we're doing it with the chief," Mayor Vincent Gray told The Washington Examiner.

The vote will come days after the District's inspector general said large segments of the department's fleet would be unavailable for service in the event of a major crisis.

"Our observations and analysis showed that many FEMS vehicles designated as reserve vehicles were out of service and could not be used if needed as replacement vehicles in neighborhood fire stations or during large-scale emergencies or mass-casualty events," Inspector General Charles Willoughby wrote. "There may not be enough reserves if there were another Sept. 11-type event."

At one warehouse that was supposed to have 20 reserve vehicles, Willoughby's investigators found only seven were present. Of those seven, only three would start.

Officials also found employees were sometimes "sent home because vehicles were out of service and unavailable."

Ellerbe, in a letter to Willoughby, said his department was committed to "ensuring that vehicles designated as reserve units are ready for immediate deployment."

And fire department officials blamed the shortcomings on Mayor Adrian Fenty's administration, "possible tampering by employees to intentionally damage vehicles" and poor work by the department's mechanics.

But the report still angered city lawmakers, including Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells, who chairs the council committee that will hold hearings into the fire department on Thursday.

"That is a dereliction of duty," Wells said. "That's outrageous. It puts our city at risk, our residents at risk. That's just completely unacceptable."

And Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans said Ellerbe needed to explain why the fleet had deteriorated.

"Something has gone wrong, and you have to figure out why," Evans said. "There's certainly plenty of money."

Smith said, though, that his union had been warning the city for years of trouble.

"We've been sounding the alarm for the past two years with nobody showing any interest. It's a shame that it's come down to this report," Smith said. "We don't learn our lessons."

ablinder@washingtonexaminer.com

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Alan Blinder

Staff Reporter, D.C. City Hall
The Washington Examiner