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Earlier this month, District firefighters’union president Ed Smith did something he hadn’t done in a while: He felt good about the District’s fire chief.

Well, the District’s almost fire chief. Kenneth Ellerbe, the embattled head of the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, is still in charge after his announcement earlier this month that he’ll leave office on July 2. Smith met with his interim replacement, Assistant Chief Eugene Jones, a week after Ellerbe revealed his plans.

“He’s got a clean slate with me,” Smith says. “I’m ready to go.”

Whatever the opposite of a clean slate is, Ellerbe and Smith had it. The department’s tortured relationship with its rank-and-file over the years has included a union walkout on one of Ellerbe’s speeches and insinuations from Ellerbe’s boss, Deputy Mayor Paul Quander, that disgruntled firefighters had started sabotaging their own ambulances. Then there were the problems that had nothing to do with labor relations, including the interminable wait time for ambulances and Medric Mills’ death outside a fire station as firefighters dawdled instead of helping him.

With Ellerbe headed out, it’s time to ask why the fire department continues to generate scandals and rancor—and whether it will ever stop.

The fire department’s woes precede both Ellerbe and Mayor Adrian Fenty–era chief Dennis Rubin. Reading old articles about the fire department makes it seem like DCFEMS is reliving a tragicomic, sometimes fatal version of Groundhog Day. In 1980, facing staff shortages, the department cut training from 10 weeks to just six days. Eleven years later, in 1991, the Washington Post caught firefighters using their horns and sirens not to save lives, but to get to McDonald’s.

Decades later, the District’s gone from financial basketcase to deciding how to spend its millions of dollars in surpluses. But the fire department’s problems haven’t changed. DCFEMS still faces a shortage of personnel, especially for ambulance staff, and picayune corruption like using sirens to get Big Macs has been replaced with alleged prostitution at a firehouse.

According to former reporter and Maryland volunteer firefighter Dave Statter, who runs fire department news website Statter911, Ellerbe didn’t help matters. Instead, the chief, whose office didn’t respond to LL’s requests for comment, made them much worse.

“I don’t think you should downplay or dismiss what’s happened in the last three years,” Statter says. “It’s set them back very far.”

Another thing hasn’t changed: the department’s racial animus. Even in the first Marion Barry administration, the department was described in the press as “racially troubled.” Some of that trouble has centered on the sometimes-discontinued cadet program that brings District youth into the department. Ellerbe restarted the program after Rubin, who describes the policy in his book about his time running the department as a funnel that lets troubled people wreak havoc in the department, discontinued it.

“He brought it back without solving the problems of the past,” Statter says.

The divide in the department has lately centered on disputes between out-of-town DCFEMS staffers and District residents in the department, with all the symbolism of white people from places like West Virginia and Pennsylvania taking government jobs in a predominantly African-American city. (Despite the stereotype of the District firefighters as long-distance commuters, according to fire union statistics, 90 percent of the force lives in D.C., Maryland, or Virginia).

Firefighters could afford to live so far away because of the department’s shift schedule, which had them working for 24 hours straight, then off for three days. When Ellerbe moved to implement shorter, more regular shifts—a move that would make working in the District more difficult for far-flung firefighters—he further inflamed tensions with the union. When firefighters protested Ellerbe, then-DCFEMS spokesman Lon Walls tweeted that their actions were racist.

Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, who chairs the D.C. Council committee that oversees DCFEMS, says Quander and Mayor Vince Gray’s focus on firefighters living outside the District amounts to some sort of “code,” but says he doesn’t know what they mean by it.

For D.C. Democrats bigwig Ronnie Edwards, making firefighters live closer to the District has nothing to do with race. Instead, Edwards, who participated in a small rally in Ellerbe’s support after Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh called for him to resign as the department’s woes mounted last summer, says he just wants firefighters close to their stations in the event of an emergency.

“We want to try to keep the jobs with the people who live within a certain radius of D.C., and right now it’s being controlled by individuals who are not D.C. residents and don’t really have D.C. residents’ best interests in mind,” says Edwards, who blames some of the department’s problems on fire department members who “will cause chaos in order to make a point.”

LL tried to reach the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters’ D.C. chapter, a group of African-American firefighters that has previously supported Ellerbe. Attempts to contact the group, however, ended in either defunct email addresses or wrong numbers. Wells says that, as Ellerbe exits, rank-and-file members of all races have become united in discontent with the chief.

Even if the District’s firefighters and management stopped fighting, though, the department would still have a long way to go. For one, DCFEMS brass have waffled in the face of a paramedic shortage on whether the department should continue to train recruits as both firefighters and paramedics, or just as one or the other.
“They have to decide which they’re going to go with and just do it,” says Wells.

With vehicles frequently out of service and two ambulances catching fire on the same day last summer (the Metropolitan Police Department ruled out sabotage), department officials ordered an audit on how the department’s fleet maintenance had gone so wrong. Meanwhile, as the department outsourced its vehicle work to other city agencies, the Department of Public Works repaired DCFEMS ambulances with street signs.

Basically, the department is a bundle of problems. How to untangle that knot isn’t so clear. Wells backs some concrete solutions—taking fleet maintenance to private contractors, for example. People familiar with the department, though, kept returning to the nebulous solution of “better leadership.”

“It can be done,” Wells says of improving the department. “They just need to have the kind of leadership and drive to do it.”

Whether the District can attract this mythical transformational fire chief to a department that seems oriented toward ruining careers isn’t clear. At least there’s time to find out: Gray says he won’t move to appoint a permanent chief before he leaves office in January.

“I think some from the conversations that I’ve had would be turned off from the idea of a real inconsistent leadership above the fire chief level,” Statter says.

Getting a top-notch fire chief to solve the department’s leadership travails could face one more hurdle, then: the people above the fire department, not within it. That problem, at least, is one D.C. voters have a say in.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery