There is a huge scandal going on in the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, and nobody is really aware of it.
This is Part Four..............
Stability and budget issues under Rubin
Fire Captain Brian K. Lee was named Acting Fire Chief in December 2006. The new Mayor of D.C., Adrian Fenty, announced on February 2, 2007, that all reforms in the DCFEMS department would be suspended until he appointed a permanent fire chief. Fenty also inaugurated four new ambulances ordered during Thompson's tenure, bringing the city's total to 37. The four were staffed with firefighters, not EMTs or paramedics. The department debuted a new Electronic Patient Care Reporting System the same day, which it said would improve patient care tracking.
Mayor Fenty named Dennis L. Rubin the new Acting Fire Chief in March 2007. A former fire chief for Atlanta, Georgia, Rubin was confirmed as the permanent fire chief on May 1. Rubin's tenure as Fire Chief was a calm one, even though the local firefighter's union contract expired and no new contract was agreed to.
Beginning in September 2008, DCFEMS began testing a new communications system developed by the United States Department of Homeland Security that linked radio, cell phones, GPS, wireless devices, and the DCFEMS dispatch system together. Known as the Radio Over Wireless Broadband (ROW-B) system, the system was designed to overcome long-standing problems where DCFEMS, police, Metro, and other agencies could not communicate with one another because they used different systems, different frequencies, and different kinds of technology. The ROW-B system was not designed to be a permanent solution to the city's problems, but a pilot project.
Conclusion of the grooming policy controversy
The department's long-simmering grooming policy controversy was resolved in September 2007. District court judge James Robertson made his temporary injunction against the policy permanent after finding that the department did not prove that long beards or hair impaired the use of saftey equipment. The department, he ruled, admitted that no firefighter ever had a perfect seal (bearded or not) and that no safety issues had arisen in the past three decades.
The judgement of the district court was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in March 2009 in a unanimous ruling. However, Judge Stephen Williams admonished the city government's attorneys, noting that they had conducted such sub-par legal work that the appellate court had no choice but to uphold the district court ruling. Williams acknowledged that had the scientific literature clearly upheld the city's regulation, but that this issue had not been raised in a timely manner.
Overtime and budgetary scandals
Rubin faced a major budgetary scandal in 2009 and 2010. In fiscal year 2009 (which ended June 30, 2009), DCFEMS spent $11 million on overtime, although it had budgeted just $5 million. Chief Rubin blamed extensive firefighter and EMS vacancies, which forced the overtime expenditures. Hiring freezes imposed by the city worsened the situation, and led to even more overtime. Rubin warned the D.C. City Countil in November 2009 that fiscal 2010 overtime expenditures would be about $8 million, although the overtime budget had remained steady at $5 million. Rubin claimed that shutting down the fire training academy and the building inspection division, closing several fire stations, and reducing staffing on fire trucks was the only way to rein in these costs, although city council members dispute his claims.
In January 2010, the Washington Examiner reported that the agency failed to budget for seniority pay for fiscal 2010, and was also $2 million over budget in fringe benefits.] Revised overtime figures now showed that the department would spend not $8 million but closer to $15.4 million for the fiscal year. The department said it could end the overtime expenditures by filling its 130 vacancies, but the council had imposed a city-wide hiring freeze to handle its own budget problems. Although 28 individuals were due to graduate from the fire training academy, more than 28 positions would be lost attrition.
Ellerbe retirement scandal
Another major personnel controversy erupted in December 2009 when the Washington Times reported that Deputy Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe left the department to take a job in Sarasota County, Florida, but had secured a deal to receive a full pension. The deal was apparently approved by Fire Captain Brian Lee, and Fire Chief Rubin did not learn about it until it was reported in the media. Ellerbe left DCFEMS in July 2009, although he would not be eligible to receive full pension benefits until April 10, 2010. Under the terms of the deal, Ellerbe was placed on leave without pay, which kept him technically employed by the District of Columbia. Ellerbe agreed to resign from DCFEMS the day after his 50th birthday. The agreement would permit Ellerbe to collect 80 percent of his final pay for five years (an amount equal to about $600,000). He would then qualify for his full pension benefit (100 percent of his final salary) when turned 55. The agreement stated that the purpose of allowing Ellerbe to go to Florida was to give him the opportunity to "acquire experience as a fire chief in a municipal fire department and thereby be better able to provide the experience of leadership in an executive manager's role."
The Ellerbe pension deal led to public outrage, and a City Council investigation. Phil Mendelson, chair of the council's public safety and judiciary committee, called the deal "a special agreement was worked out for somebody high up to cheat the rule regarding retirement".
After two months of controversy, Rubin ended the agreement. Rubin informed Ellerbe in late January 2010 that the pension agreement was now void. Ellerbe was forced to return to active duty in D.C. or resign. According to the Washington Times, Ellerbe resigned from DCFEMS and remained in Sarasota, although the Washington Post reported a few months later that Ellerbe resigned his Sarasota post and returned to D.C.
While living in Sarasota, Ellerbe illegally attempted to claim a tax exemption for his home in Washington, D.C.
Other leadership and personnel controversies
In May 2007, a federal jury rejected a claim of reverse discrimination brought by 23 white officers. The officers claimed they were denied promotion in favor of African American officers who were less-qualified or had less experience. They also claimed that then-Chief Ronnie Few disproportionately chose to interview black officers for promotion. While the lawsuit was pending, all promotions in DCFEMS were placed on hold.
But the troubled EMS division continued to have problems. In March 2009, Rafael Sa'adah was named assistant chief of the division, even though he personally and EMS as a whole were being sued by the family of Johnquan Wright, who died of gunshots wounds while being treated by paramedics. Wright's family argued that Sa'adah told responders to stop treating the victim in the mistaken belief that he had a gunshot wound to the head and was moribund, although the D.C. Inspector General's office found no evidence that Wright acted inappropriately. D.C. City Council member Phil Mendelson and local citizens groups also questioned Sa'adah's appointment, arguing that no good-faith national search for an assistant chief had been made despite promises from Chief Rubin.
Thirty African American firefighters sued the department in October 2010 alleging racial discrimination. The suit named about 10 white male firefighters who were accused or convicted of crimes -- including assault (sometimes with knives), emailing images of their genitals to female colleagues, illegal possesion of a handgun, public nudity in the firehouse, and stalking -- but had not been disciplined. But black firefighters accused or convicted of similar crimes were punished. The lawsuit also alleged that the department purposefully allowed the 2006 promotions list (which had many black candidates on it) to expire so that a 2010 list (which had few black candidates) could be acted on instead. The suit asked for class action status for the department's 1,000 black firefighters.
After Fenty lost renomination as mayor, Rubin resigned effective January 2, 2011. He made his announcement on October 22, 2010.