This is Part Five, and the last one..............
Budgetary, maintenance, and personnel problems under Ellerbe
Ellerbe hiring scandal
The city's new mayor, Vincent C. Gray, appointed Kenneth B. Ellerbe, a childhood friend of the mayor's, as the city's new Fire Chief in December 2010. His salary was $187,302 a year.
In March 2012, however, the Washington Times reported that Ellerbe was never fully vetted before being hired by Gray. The newspaper said that the Gray administration never asked for Ellerbe's personnel file from Sarasota, where he spent nearly six months as chief before returning to Washington, D.C. The personnel file revealed that several female firefighters in Sarasota had accused Ellerbe of sexual harassment. Ellerbe allegedly told Sarasota Battalion Chief Joe Robinson that staring at women's breasts was "part of my heritage" and that none of the women in the department were good looking. Robinson also claimed that Ellerbe warned staff not to "cross" him and that he was vindictive. Ellerbe denied harassing anyone, denied making the statements, and claimed they were made by union members upset with changes he made in the department. Ellerbe claimed Sarasota County found the allegations false, although the Washington Times reported there was no such finding in his personnel file. Sarasota County administrator Dave Bullock said Ellerbe was counseled regarding the county's sexual harassment policy after the incident, but that is routine after any allegation (legitimate or not). Gray defended the lack of vetting and the decision to not conduct a national search for a new fire chief, arguing that it was more important to get permanent leadership into the department. City Council member Phil Mendelson, whose public safety committee held hearings on Ellerbe's nomination, said the committee did not see nor did it ask for Ellerbe's Sarasota personnel file. Both Local 36, IAFF, and the D.C. Federation of Citizens Associations expressed their displeasure that a national search was not conducted, and expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of complete vetting.
More fooling around with people's lives, behind the cut here...
Ellerbe createad a furor in the department in April 2011 when he ordered the DCFEMS logo to read "FEMS" and not "DCFD". Because firefighters pay for their own equipment (which includes shirts, jackets, boots, and coats), firefighters were faced with thousands of dollars in new clothing and equipment purchases (although they had not had a pay increase in five years). The change would have also required expensive changes to logos on fire trucks. Ellerbe was forced to put the change on hold for 120 days, but the change was not rescinded. Less controversial were his decisions to increase the budget for vehicle replacement and to have firefighters and EMS personnel accompany Metropolitan Police Department patrols of high-crime areas.
The uniform controversy continued unabated through 2011. In December 2011, Ellerbe changed the logo again (this time to display the flags of the District of Columbia and the United states). Ellerbe threatened to discipline any DCFEMS member not wearing the new new logo. In response, DCFEMS personnel began turning clothing inside out. It was the fifth uniform change since ordered by Ellerbe change since becoming Fire Chief. In late January, Ellerbe issued an order forbidding any unmarked clothing. Ellerbe asserted that DCFEMS was a paramilitary organization and unmarked clothing was "a risk to homeland security", but the firefighters' union said it was a retaliatory action in response to wearing clothing inside-out since early January.
The logo change caused another controversy in April 2012. The department ordered 1,750 polo shirts at a cost of $70,000 shortly before the logo change went into effect. On April 12, 2012, DCFEMS issued an order to all personnel stating that the shirts would be given to staff despite the old logo. Less than 30 minutes later, the order was rescinded. DCFEMS assistant chiefs said that the order was issued in error after D.C. City Council members inquired about how the department was going to use the stored shirts. DCFEMS promised to issue an order about the shirts at some point in the future.
Overtime pay initially dropped significantly in Ellerbe's first eight months on the job. Overtime pay fell from about $12 million in fiscal 2010 to just $5 million in fiscal 2011 (although that was still $1 million more than budgeted). The drop was explained by a legal limit on overtime of $20,000 a year per firefighter, imposed by the city council.
The following year, overtime rose again. The department anticipated spending $2 million more on overtime than it had budgeted for, despite moving move firefighters off sick leave and onto the active duty rolls. The firefighters' union blamed the overtime on 163 vacancies, although Ellerbe said "several dozen" firefighters were due to be hired shortly. The controversy deepened when Ellerbe closed three stations (Adams Morgan, North Cleveland Park, and Washington Highlands) for two days due to lack of staffing. Ellerbe asserted too many firefighters at other stations took leave, and he closed the three stations to staff the remaining open ones. The union charged that Ellerbe was creating a false crisis by refusing to use money budgeted for the vacancies to pay for overtime. If he had, they said, the three stations would not have had to close.
In late August 2011, the department shuttered its Twitter account, which had been open since March 2009. It also encrypted its police radio broadcasts. The department's communications director, Lon Walls, justified the closure by saying, "Social media is for parties. We ain't giving parties." Ellerbe provided a different rationale, arguing that incorrect information could be distributed by the Twitter feed, endangering public safety or causing problems for emergency responders. After pushback from local media, the account returned, though it no longer reported crime-related events. The department refused to decrypt its radio use, however.
Ellerbe later placed Walls on leave in February 2012 after a heated exchange about racism on Twitter. More than 100 firefighters walked out of a State of the Department address delivered by Chief Ellerbe in early February. One his personal Twitter feed and personal facebook account, Walls called the action the "most blatant, ignorant and racist public display of disrespect I have ever seen." The Washington Times inquired about the posts, and Walls removed them at Chief Ellerbe's request. Walls' suspension-with-pay lasted a few days.
Firefighter scheduling controversy
A major controversy of scheduling erupted in November 2011 when Ellerbe proposed that firefighters work a "3-3-3 shift" -- three 12-hour days (with nights off), three 12-hour nights (with days off), and three days off. It was a staffing model used by the D.C. fire department in the 1960s and 1970s, and marked a change from the then-current practice of three 24-hour shifts followed by three days off. Ellerbe claimed it would reduce staffing costs by $36 million a year after four years, and increase days worked per month to 22 from eight. Because about 40 percent of the firefighters lived 30 to 100 miles away, the plan would encourage firefighters to move closer to D.C. and enable the city to recall off-duty firefighters more quickly in an emergency. The union, Local 36, IAFF, said firefighters' salaries ($44,300 for a new hire, and $65,500 for a 20 year veteran) were too low to allow firefighters to live in or near the District of Columbia. The staffing plan would force them to lower their standard of living by moving nearer or into D.C., and deny them the opportunity to work second jobs. The union said the long lead-time to recall off-duty staff was actually beneficial, and would cost the city $16 million a year rather than save money.
Rank-and-file anger about proposal was deep, and many firefighters talked about protesting the proposal publicly during the chief's State of the Department speech in late January. This itself caused a controversy, for firefighters claimed that in the days prior to the speech handwritten directives began appearing in firehouse logbooks that barred various kinds of protest and threatened punishment for anyone disrupting the chief's speech. Departmental officials denied writing the directives, although the union said it had had an email discussion with Ellerbe verifying that they were official.
When Ellerbe delivered his State of the Department speech (the first ever delivered by a fire chief), more than 100 firefighters turned their backs to him and then walked out to protest the plan.
As of November 2012, the two parties were still negotiating over the plan.
In March 2013, Ellerbe testified at a D.C. City Counil hearing in favor of his scheduling plan, which still had not been implemented.
Ambulance scheduling controversy
In November 2012, Chief Ellerbe proposed a plan to reduce ambulance service between 1:00 A.M. and 7:00 A.M. and transfer these crews to service between the hours of 7:00 A.M. and noon. Ellerbe said the change would eliminate half of the 42 overnight paramedics and all 14 advanced life support ambulances. The remaining 21 paramedics would ride with fire engines or trucks (which typically respond to medical emergencies also). There would be no change to the 21 to 25 basic life support ambulances available, which are staffed by EMTs. Ellerbe said the city receives about 10 calls per hour overnight, but 20 per hour mornings. The proposal required D.C. City Council approval. The firefighters' union opposed the plan, arguing it would overload firefighters and reduced fire fighting ability. But the paramedics' union (Local 3721, American Federation of Government Employees), supported it.
Ellerbe's plan was not well received by the D.C. City Council or local citizens' groups. At an initial hearing in November 2012, the firefighters' union testified that paramedic vacancies led to staffing downgrades for the 14 overnight advanced life support ambulances, leaving them staffed with EMTs. An average of 4.4 advanced life support ambulances had been downgraded every night in the past year, the union said. Ellerbe dispute those numbers, but provided none on downgrades, saying that the real issue was call volume and not staffing. The D.C. Federation of Citizens Associations, a coalition of neighborhood citizens' groups, testified that similar redeployment plans were tested three times in the late 1980s and did not work. At a second hearing in December 2012, city council public safety committee chair Mendelson expressed frustration with plan, noting that DCFEMS has been unable to say how many paramedics it has on staff. (Ellerbe blamed a software problem for that.) Mendelson also said Ellerbe's plan also didn't seem to take into account scheduled leave, illness, or unforeseen problems.
The plan drew national attention as well. An emergency medical services director from Connecticut said that redeployment was common, but downgrading the quality of care at night was "unusual". Paul Werfel, director of the paramedic program at the University Medical Center at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, said the plan gave commuters better care but provided less to those who lived in the District of Columbia. The severity of the calls should be taken into account, Werfel said, not just the number of calls. A nationwide survey of medical professionals conducted by the Washington Times said Ellerbe's plan would be unique. A DCFEMS spokesperson said the department treated all calls as equally serious. Don Lundy, president-elect of the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians, praised Ellerbe for his innovativeness, but questioned whether the District should rely on fire engines to transport a single paramedic or EMT. Lundy suggested providing paramedics and EMTs with their own, far less costly vehicles.
Ellerbe backed off the plan in late December 2012. Ellerbe altered the plan so that five rather than zero advanced life support ambulances would remain on duty between 1:00 A.M. and 7:00 A.M.
The ambulance service was rocked by three scandals at the beginning of 2013. In the first, a man suffering a heart attack waited 29 minutes for an ambulance to arrive on December 31, 2012. He later died. In the second, no ambulance could be located to transport a D.C. police officer who was a victim of a hit and run accident in February. An ambulance from Prince George's County, Maryland, had to be dispatched to assist the policeman. DCFEMS had 39 units staffed that night, and 10 were out of service. "A couple" more could not be located by the department. In the third incident, no ambulance could be located in March to transport a patient with a stroke. The individual was transported to a hospital aboard a fire truck. Ellerbe admitted that DCFEMS was at a "tipping point" in terms of staffing (and claimed it had been for two years), and ordered at least two reserve ambulances to be on duty at all times. An investigation revealed that one parademic and two EMT crews failed to follow procedures and should have been able to respond. The three D.C. crews and a supervisor were disciplined.
Ellerbe asserted that incidents of delayed care were uncommon and infrequent, despite worsening response times. Although improvements recommended by a task force in the wake of the Rosenbaum case had still not been fully implemented, Ellerbe declared that had his staffing plan been in effect the three incidents would not have happened.
The scandals led to a significant reduction in trust placed in the DCFEMS emergency medical services division, and on June 28, 2013, the public safety committee of the D.C. City Council rejected Elerbe's altered plan.
In August 2013, DCFEMS reported that it had significantly lowered EMS response times in April, May, June, and July of 2013. The department said its standard was to respond to a call (e.g., leave the station) within 6.5 minutes 90 percent of the time. The department lowered its response time from 84 percent of the time in February 2013 to 92 percent of the time in June 2013. The response time for crtical calls (about half of those received every day) also fell, from 5:03 minutes in February 2013 to 4:02 minutes in June 2013. Ellerbe attributed the improvements to a new protocal that required ambulance crews and firefighter EMTs to submit paperwork justifying the response time every time it exceeded the standard. Ellerbe suggested that some employees were simply not responding very quickly, and noted that at least one employee was disciplined for not being able to justify a slow response time. The firefighters' union complained about the amount of paperwork required, and said crews were sacrificing safety in order to meet the response time standard. The union claimed there had been a sharp rise in minor road accidents since Ellerbe's protocol went into effect, and that some crews were lying when they said they had responded.
Arson counting controversy
Shortly after Ellerbe assumed control of DCFEMS, the department changed the way it counts arson fires. Under Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin, any intentionally set fire was considered arson, a definition used by the National Fire Protection Association. A new definition was adopted by DCFEMS in 2011 which required that a "willful, malicious intent to start a fire" must be present. Fire department spokesman Tim Wilson later said the new definitiion was adopted to "reflect a more detailed analysis of how arson cases are identified and closed." It remained unclear how the department came up with its new definition.
In summer 2012, Deputy Fire Chief Bruce D. Faust, who supervised building inspections and arson investigations, told the D.C. Chief Financial Officer, Natwar Gandhi, that the number of arson cases and how many cases were closed had both dropped significantly in the past year. Faust questioned the accuracy of the most recent numbers, and that the city was not using a consistent definition for counting arson.
On April 17, 2013, Chief Ellerbe testified at a D.C. City Council hearing that his department was solving 72.7 percent of all arson cases, three times the national average. The number of arson cases dropped to 32 in fiscal year 2012 from 154 the year before. Council member Tommy Wells asked Ellerbe if any change in measurement had been made, and Ellerbe said there had "not been much of a change". Ellerbe attributed the markedly lower numbers to more experienced employees and fewer arsons committed. But at the same hearing, Faust told the council that using the old definition, DCFEMS had a 9.6 percent closure rate.
The Washington Post made public the definitional change on April 18. A DCFEMS spokesperson subsequently admitted that the full-year arson closure rate was about 34 percent. Faust told the newspaper that there was no validity to the department's new definition. When the newspaper interviewed Ellerbe about the definitional change, he left the interview without explanation and did not return.
Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice, Paul Quander, Jr., defended Ellerbe, saying that the chief had not intended to deceive the council on April 17. Quander also confirmed that a definitional change had occurred. An angry Wells told Quander during a public hearing that Ellerbe should have acknowledged the change and asked for time to provide more data, and that the lackof transparency was deeply troubling at time when the DCFEMS arson unit had a 50 percent vacancy rate and the department had asked to cut two full-time investigators.
Vehicle tracking controversy
In 2012, DCFEMS began losing track of the location of reserve vehicles, and its internal database of which fire engines were available was inaccurate. The agency hired a consultant at a cost of $182,000 to create an accurate database of vehicle status and location.
In March 2013, the Washington Post reported that DCFEMS could not account for several vehicles, and claimed others were in service or in reserve when they had, in fact, long been scrapped. In a database of equipment submitted by Ellerbe to the D.C. City Council in February 2013, DCFEMS claimed it had 16 active and 13 reserve fire truck companies and 33 active and 32 reserve fire engines. But Local 36, the firefighters' union, conducted its own investigation in which it compared serial numbers on actual equipment to the listings on the database, and discovered two reserve trucks were inactive due to repair, two reserve trucks had been sold, and six reserve engines were either being repaired or had been sold. Ellerbe conceded that the union's inventory was correct, and blamed an out of date database for the problem. The deputy fire chief who compiled the list immediately retired. The broken equipment included Foam 1, a fire fighting foam unit which had been out of service since November 2012. Because Foam 1 was assigned to protect helicopter landings by the Vice President of the United States, the city was forced to ask the United States Navy for the loan of its foam unit to cover his landings. Council member Tommy Wells, the new chair of the city's committee on public safety and the judiciary, said he had lost confidence in the information provided by DCFEMS, that the department had not been forthcoming with its answers, and that additional hearings would be needed on the issue. Although the Washington Post said that the city needed new fire equipment worth tens of millions of dollars, Ellerbe denied any such need and said he had in place an "aggressive" plan to all the needed vehicles.
The day after the hearing, DCFEMS announced that two ambulances had completed repairs and were returned to active duty. But the paramedic assigned to the vehicle found it had been stripped of all its equipment, including its stretcher. The Washington Times called the press conference called to tout the existence of the two reserve amublances "bizarre".
In the week following the hearing, the firefighter's union voted 300 to 37 that it had "no confidence" in Ellerbe's leadership. Deputy Mayor Quander, however, reiterated that he had very strong confidence in Ellerbe.
On March 22, the D.C. Inspector General found more discrepancies in DCFEMs' vehicle readiness. It pointed to a July 12, 2012, incident in which DCFEMS said all 12 reserve fire engines were ready for duty. In fact, only one engine was ready. The same day, the department listed 31 ambulances in reserve and active for duty, but only 10 were ready for service. (Three ambulances listed as ready had been out of service for more than 36 months, 21 months years, and nine months.) The inspector general further reported that front-line supervisors knew there was an inadequate reserve fleet, and had complained to assistant and deputy chiefs without success; that firefighters were "routinely" sent home because there were too few vehicles; and that the quality of repairs to fire trucks and engines was poor. The inspector general also found that air conditioners in ambulances frequently failed, creating closed-door temperatures of 120 degrees Fahrenheit or more. The high heat often left paramedics ill, and reduced the quality of service provided to city residents. The Washington City Paper called the "dysfunction and incompetence surrounding the department's fleet management system...more than a little frightening. If D.C. were to suffer 'large-scale emergencies or mass casualty events,' the department would not have the reserve equipment needed to respond".
The five-hour hearing on March 22 was a contentious one. Council member Wells called Ellerbe's answers about vehicle readiness "vague", and the Washington Post reported that Ellerbe "repeatedly faltered" while answering. When pressed, Ellerbe could not even say if he had visited the DCFEMS 9-1-1 emergency call center. Ellerbe turned for help from Deputy Mayor Paul Quander so often that Wells rebuked Ellerbe and demanded that Ellerbe (not Quander) respond. D.C. City Council chairman Phil Mendelson expressed shock that the city had to rely on reports from the firefighters' union and D.C. Inspector General's office for accurate information on the department, and rhetorically asked how Ellerbe cannot track 411 vehicles when the D.C. police can keep accurate track of 4,000 cars, trucks, and motorcycles. Ellerbe apologized to the council at the hearing for submitting inaccurate data on the fleet. But Wells warned Ellerbe that he should be prepared to quit unless he could guarantee the accuracy of the information the department provides. Despite the faulty vehicle data, Ellerbe said his capital request ($24 million for fiscal 2014, 2015, and 2016) did not need revision.
At the March 22 hearing, Ellerbe also accused his department's mechanics and rank-and-file firefighters of purposefully sabotaging equipment. He cited the D.C. Inspector General's report of February 2013, which said there had been allegations of sabotage (including driving vehicles in low gear to damage transmissions, slashing tires, and tampering with air conditioners). The following month, Ellerbe claimed he had complete confidence in the repair personnel at DCFEMS.
In July 2013, DCFEMS said it would pay BDA Global $184,000 to perform a comprehensive audit of its entire fleet. The audit, due in 60 days, will list every piece of equipment the deparment owns, identify when equipment is due to be replaced, track repair status, and provide suggestions on how to improve management of the departments vehicular tracking system.
Ambulance maintenance controversy
Maintenance problems with DCFEMS ambulances were known to the department as early as 2011. In July 2012, widespread failure of ambulance air conditioning units became common. A D.C. Inspector General's report in March 2013 clearly identified the problem, and reported it to Mayor Gray and to the D.C. City Council.
In April 2013, Ellerbe faced questions about the department's maintenance of its ambulance fleet. When asked if the fleet was ready for Washington's hot summer, Ellerbe said the department was proactively inspecting all air conditoning units and fixing those with problems. "I'm confident in our equipment and I'm confident in our personnel," he said.
Little was done about the ambulance maintenance problem, however, and it created significant problems in summer 2013. Air conditioning in 22 of the city's 94 ambulances broke down in June 2013. To provide adequate coverage at events at the Verizon Center and at Nationals Park (home of Major League Baseball's Washington Nationals), DCFEMS hired two private companies (American Medical Response and Lifestar Ambulance Service). The cost of the outsourcing could not be estimated. Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul Quander said there was no emergency, and that the city would spend several weeks evaluating the situation first. During the weekend of July 19-21, only 37 ambulances were available—forcing DCFEMS to send 16 ambulances for repair at the District of Columbia Department of Public Works and another six to the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority. DCFEMS announced on July 23, 2013, that it had hired an auditor at the cost of $180,000 to examine its fleet maintenance practices, and that the delivery of 13 new ambulances in August would alleviate the problem with breakdowns.
In July 2013, the ambulance repair problem worsened. More than two-thirds of the entire ambulance fleet (67 vehicles) needed repair of some kind between July 19 and July 26. Of these, 22 ambulances needed repairs twice. Fourteen ambulances were still out of service as of August 7. DCFEMS admitted that it had spent $50,000 so far on outsourcing, and the city admitted that it had asked George Washington University Hospital to help it meet needs. (The hospital agreed to do so at no cost, because it had a "mutual aid" agreement with the city.) Once more, Deputy Mayor Quander said there was no emergency, and that several more weeks of evaluation would be needed. Chief Ellerbe also told the press that delivery of the 13 expected ambulances was delayed for unspecified reasons. However, he also said the city might purchase as many as 33 new ambulances. But firefighters' union president Ed Smith said he believed DCFEMS did not have an equipment replacement schedule, and the city kept getting caught by surprised when vehicles wore out.
On August 1, Ellerbe claimed an "unprecedented" number of new ambulances would be recieved by DCFEMS in fiscal year 2014 (which will begin September 1, 2013). The department usually receives about 10 new ambulances a year, but Ellerbe declined to say how many vehicles the department will actually receive in fiscal 2014.
On August 2, a DCFEMS ambulance caught fire outside Washington Hospital Center. An internal DCFEMS report found that the battery (which was not original to the vehicle) had an electrical problem which caused the fire. About $5,000 in damage was done to the $120,000 vehicle.
The ambulance maintenance issue made national headlines on August 12, 2013, when a DCFEMS ambulance that was part of President Barack Obama's motorcade ran out of gas on the South Lawn of the White House. EMS personnel said they reported a broken fuel gauge months ago, while DCFEMS said workers failed to fill the vehicle with gasoline.
On August 13, 2013, two DCFEMS ambulances caught fire—one while delivering a patient a Washington Hospital Center, the other while responding to an emergency call at an apartment building on Benning Road SE. (Another ambulance was dispatched to take the patient to the hospital.) The firefighters union argued the problem arose from poor management, while DCFEMS said the problems either cannot be accounted for or are the result of rank-and-file incompetence or neglect. An image of the burning ambulance outside the apartment buildng made its way onto the Internet and received widespread distribution nationally.
In the wake of the fires, firefighters' union president Edward Smith called for a National Transportation Safety Board investigation of the department fleet.
DCFEMS also asked the D.C. police to investigate whether arson was the cause of the ambulance fires. Deputy Mayor Paul Quander called two ambulance fires on the same day suspicious and asked the police to investigate to ensure that "nothing untoward is happening". Quander declined to elaborate on what he meant, and the firefighters' union denounced his statement as a slur on workers. But on August 16, a preliminary investigation determined that both fires were likely accidental. Investigators discovered that DCFEMS maintenance crews (with management approval) were attempting to fix overheating vehicle air conditioners by cutting up aluminum signs and using them as heat shields. DCFEMS superiors ordered the "heat shields" removed after the revelation. Police arson investigators then learned that Medic 27 (which caught fire at the apartment building) had ongoing maintenance issues and that its air conditioner repeatedly failed. The investigation determined that the fire started near the air conditioner (although it did not determine exactly which piece of equipment failed and caused the fire), and concluded the fire was accidental. Medic 27, a 2006 vehicle in the reserve fleet, suffered $25,000 in damage. The second "fire" was not a fire but merely smoke issuing from under the hood of the ambulance. D.C police arson investigators found a small plastic container of transmission fluid stored in the engine compartment, which began smoking after being heated by the constantly-running engine. Because no actual fire occured, the report did not conclude whether the container was placed there accidentally.
On August 19, The Washingtonian magazine reported on its Web site that Chief Ellerbe had an alleged confrontation with a firefighter over a picture taken of the burning Medic 27 vehicle. According to the report, Ellerbe arrived at the scene of the ambulance fire and noticed a firefighter with a smartphone in his hand. The magazine said that Ellerbe demanded that the firefighter hand over camera phone, grabbed it from the firefighter's hand, looked it over, and returned it. Ellerbe denied the incident categorically, saying he went to the scene of the fire only because "I thought my presence would initiate a faster response in removing the vehicle from public view". He requested the phone, and the firefighter willingly handed it over. Ellerbe says that when he saw the phone was not functioning, he returned it immediately. Ellerbe requested and received an internal investigation into the accusation, and on August 21 firefighter Sean Christopher Griffith filed a formal criminal complaint against Ellerbe. Griffith said Ellerbe twisted his hand and forearm so badly while grabbing the phone from him that he had to seek medical care and was out on sick leave a full week.
Paramedic staffing scandal
In addition to the ambulance mechanical problems, DCFEMS began having trouble staffing its ambulances properly in 2012 as well. The firefighters' union accused Ellerbe os mismanaging the emergency services division (which includes both paramedics and EMTs), and said that 37 emergency medical staff quit between January 2011 and December 2012. In December 2012, during hearings on the issue, City Council member Mendelson said that DCFEMS could not accurately determine how many paramedics and EMTs it had on staff, as departmental figures provided various numbers between 225 and 250.
The dispute over staffing number continued into February 2012. The union claimed 20 paramedics quit DCFEMS in calendar 2011, while the agency said it was 12.
By late summer, the parademic staff was chronically understaffed. The firefighters' union claimed that 53 paramedics had quit since Ellerbe took over as Fire Chief, and none were replaced. The union claimed DCFEMS was using mandatory overtime to force paramedics to work a second 12-hour shift in order to cover staffing needs. There were 185 cases of mandatory overtime in 2012, the union asserted, and 411 cases in the first seven months of 2013. The department blamed staffing woes on workers taking too much unscheduled leave. During the weekend of August 9 to 12, 2013, almost two-thirds of the department's advanced life support ambulances were staffed by EMTs due to a shortage of paramedics. Most of the the EMTs were firefighters, not "civilians" (e.g., EMTs who were not trained as firefighters). Phil Mendelson, chair of the City Council, said the fire department was "an embarrassment to the city" and that a large segment of the public believes "there is a meltdown going on" in DCFEMS. But Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Quander continued to voice his support for Ellerbe.
To handle the paramedic shortage, Deputy Mayor Quander announced a major shift in DCFEMS hiring policy. In the past, the city always hired paramedics who were also firefighters. Quander said that the city would now hire "civilian" paramedics—those who were not also trained as firefighters. Becasue of long-standing animosity between the firefighter and EMS divisions (which had different pay, fringe benefit, and scheduling differences), the city had a policy of hiring only firefighter-trained paramedics. "Civilian" paramedics were lost through attrition. However, DCFEMS gave no indication of when "civilian" paramedic hiring would begin, or how many it would hire.
Retaliatory employee punishment controversy
Ellerbe retaliated or allegedly retaliated several times against department employees who criticized him.
In July 2011, Captain Edward C. Smith (who is also the firefighters' union president) spoke to the press about a recent decision by Ellerbe to cut back on the amount of pregnancy leave for female firefighters. Within hours, Ellerbe met with Smith and said he was "displeased" with his comments and that Smith would "pay for it". Ten days later, Smith was transferred to a job that paid less and had less responsibility. Smith filed a grievance with the D.C. Office of Employee Appeals. In February 2012, DCFEMS workers painted over the "DCFD" logo at Engine Co. 7 where Smith worked. No other fire stations were altered, however. In November 2012, an arbitrator ruled that Ellerbe illegally retaliated against Smith. The arbitrator also strongly criticized Ellerbe for trying to manufacture evidence against Smith, and for supplying a false rationale for Smith's transfer. When the arbitrator's ruling was made public, D.C. City Council chair Phil Mendelson called Ellerbe's action "not good for the department" and decried the worsening tension between the fire chief and the firefighters' union.
Two more incidents occurred in April 2012. The first involved Ellerbe's demotion of Battalion Chief Richard Sterne to the rank of captain on April 8. Two firefighters and a lieutenant in a station in Northeast D.C. had accepted a case of beer from a grateful local resident. Ellerbe requested the men be suspended. Sterne discovered that the men had rejected the gift, but the resident left it behind anyway. When Sterne reprimanded the two firefighters rather than suspended them, Ellerbe issued the demotion and cited the disciplinary hearing as the reason. "Your failure to hold the members accountable for their receipt of the beer in violation of the Rules of Conduct brings into question your ability to exercise proper judgment in the performance of your assigned duties," he wrote. Sterne filed an appeal with the D.C. Office of Employee Appeals. The second incident involved the transfer of Battalion Chief Kevin Sloan. Sloan ruled that the lieutenant in the case was not guilty, as he was not present when the gift was delivered. Ellerbe subsequently transferred Sloan from active duty to a desk job in April 2012, although he gave no reason for the transfer. Sloan called the action retaliatory and said Ellerbe engaged in "workplace bullying". Sloan, too, filed an appeal.
Commenting on the Smith, Sterne, and Sloan cases, legal expert Curt Varone called Ellerbe's actions "almost beyond belief". Voicing his opinion that Ellerbe's actions were retaliatory, Varone noted:
Here is the bottom line: In DC the fire chief is the final decision maker on matters of discipline. If the fire chief does not like recommendations that his subordinate chiefs give him, he should IGNORE THEM. He is the fire chief and that is his prerogative to overrule their decisions by issuing what ever punishment he believes is warranted. But to punish fact finders for disagreeing with him? What message does that send?Another alleged retaliation came in July 2012. Lieutenant Robert Alvarado gave an interview to a local D.C. television station in which he discussed his dissatisfaction with Ellerbe's decisions regarding the DCFEMS logo and the stored polo shirts. Ellerbe demanded that Alvarado be suspended for a month for speaking to the media without authorization. Suspensions of more than three days must be determined by a trial board, and in July 2012 the trial board found Alvarado guilty. He was suspended for 22 days. After serving the suspension, Alvarado was transferred from active duty to the DCFEMS fire training academy. He also filed an appeal with the D.C. Office of Employee Appeals.
A number of other, smaller controversies have occupied DCFEMS during Ellerbe's tenure as Fire Chief.
Training problems under previous fire chiefs became apparent under Ellerbe as well. In 2011, the firefighters' union criticized the chief for cutting back on training, which it said had seen a sharp drop in the past year. The issue arose again in August 2012. Five firefighters were injured during a fire at 48th Place NE in April 2011, and a 500-page investigation of the incident found that training was poor, equipment old or insufficient, and firefighting protocols lax or inadequate. Additionally, the report urged the department to establish a database of abandoned buildings, buy more thermal imaging cameras, and add oral and intranasl pain-killing medications to ambulances. Most of the recommendations in the report had been suggested previously, but never implemented.
In late 2012, Ellerbe stopped granting requests for interviews.
On December 31, 2012, an apparent sick-out occurred. In early December 2012, Mayor Gray announced bonuses for all city workers except police and firefighters. On New Year's Eve, more than 100 firefighters, paramedics, and EMTs unexpectedly called in sick. Usually, about 20 of the 440 firefighters on duty call in sick each day. DCFEMS confirmed that some firetrucks sat idle due to low staffing. The city accused the firefighters' and paramedics' unions of organizing an illegal wildcat strike, while both unions denied it. The incident led to a number of off-duty staff being called in, significant overtime, and delayed care.
Then on February 19, DCFEMS firefighters accepted an invitation by the White House to stand with President Obama in a press conference that discussed the effect budget sequestration would have on emergency services in the nation. While other jurisdictions praised their firefighters for appearing, Ellerbe "scolded" his for appearing without permission from either the Fire Chief's office or the mayor's office. When Wells questioned him if any firefighter had been punished for the appearance, Ellerbe said no. But he did say new protocols were being established to prevent such actions from occurring in the future. Ellerbe's action in the White House incident led Smith to boycott a mayoral luncheon congratulating fire and EMS workers for their achievements during the 2013 presidential inauguration.
On March 2, 2013, two more controversies welled up at a city council hearing. The first was more than $97,000 in overtime payments to 10 DCFEMS mechanics in fiscal 2012. Ellerbe blamed front-line managers, who allowed too many workers to take leave and then approved too much overtime. He promised new protocoals to ensure it did not recur. The second were accusations of sexual harassment made by two female cadets at the DCFEMS fire training academy against male colleagues. Ellerbe said management "reacted quickly" to the incident, but committee on public safety chair Tommy Wells asked for a D.C. inspector general investigation. Ellerbe spent part of his testimony at the hearing discussing much improved ambulance response times. But a week later, on March 9, Ellerbe was forced to admit that ambulance response times were poor.
On March 10, Deputy Mayor Quander was once more forced to reaffirm his support for Ellerbe.
Despite the wide array of problems in the department, Mayor Gray's office bestowed an "A+" rating on DCFEMS' performance in April 2013. The award was part of the "Grade D.C." intiative, designed to rate every city agency on how it meets its goals. The contractor which ran the program for the city later said that three Tweets and seven online reviews (all provided by the public) on the Grade D.C. Web site were the only data used in generating the A+ score.
In late June 2013, Mayor Gray again said that he supported Ellerbe. Alan Suderman, author if the highly influential "Loose Lips" political column at the Washington City Paper, said that Gray's support for Ellerbe was baffling, given the mayor's willingness to fire other high-level administration appointees for far less. Suderman also reported that several senior-level Gray administration officials believe Ellerbe should have been fired long ago.
On July 1, City Council member Mary Cheh called for Ellerbe to resign. She was the first council member to do so. Council member Wells, now running for mayor in 2014, said he would replace Ellerbe if elected.