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Harry Jaffe: D.C. firefighters want Chief Ellerbe gone

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Local,DC,Harry Jaffe

It's no secret that there's little love lost between D.C. Fire and EMS Chief Kenneth Ellerbe and the rank-and-file firefighters and paramedics. You might expect a natural enmity between management and union members in any public workforce -- especially police and fire -- but the relationship between Ellerbe and his troops is getting untenable, dare I say dangerous.

It's getting so bad that I'm worried basic safety of D.C. residents could be compromised -- especially when you factor in the city's aging fleet of fire trucks and ambulances, and the 200 vacancies in the department, and the paramedics who are fleeing the force. And the basic mistrust.

Monday night, the union's executive board met and passed a vote of "no confidence" in the chief. The motion will be presented to the 1,800 members of D.C. Firefighters Association Local 36 later this month.

I would not bet on Chief Ellerbe winning that contest.

"Confidence in the chief?" asked Dick Sterne. "Absolutely not. He has the confidence of nobody beyond his own circle of cronies."

Sterne has been a D.C. firefighter for going on 32 years. He's worked his way up to captain, which is one step below battalion fire chief. He's seen a lot of chiefs come and go. Ellerbe stands out.

"He's vindictive, he's petty," says Sterne. "He seems to be more about his agenda than the welfare of the people of the city and the department."

Race is a perennial flash point in D.C.'s fire department. Many firefighters are white and hail from beyond the city limits, some from West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Ellerbe is bent on hiring African-Americans from D.C.

Will the union vote split on racial lines?

"Most black firefighters are fed up, too," Sterne says.

Mayor Vince Gray's office is fed up with cranky, complaining firefighters. Gray goes way back with Ellerbe and chose him without the benefit of a serious search. Gray has said he has full confidence in Ellerbe. He and his people see the union as digging in its heels to protect cushy jobs fighting fires in a city where 85 percent of calls are for medical emergencies rather than fires.

Lon Walls, Ellerbe's spokesman, says the chief is used to the criticism: "He knew what he was getting into."

Firefighters tell me they need more and better equipment to serve the city's expanding population, but when I raise the equipment matter with a mayoral aide as a possible cause of delayed service, he suggested the firefighters might be "fabricating" reports about busted trucks.

"That's offensive and baseless," says union boss Ed Smith. "Prove it."

That proves the trust between the chief and his troops is up in flames.

Harry Jaffe's column appears on Wednesday. He can be contacted at hjaffe@washingtonian.com.

Harry Jaffe's column appears on Wednesday. He can be contacted at hjaffe@washingtonian.com.

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