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The D.C. fire truck specifically designated to save the president and the first family from a White House blaze has been out of service for 500 out of the last 1,000 days, according to some of its operators, and is, in the words of one firefighter assigned to drive the truck, a “piece of crap.”

Tower 3, the District fire department’s one and only tower truck (a tower truck has a bucket at the end of its ladder), is stationed at the fire house downtown on 13th and L streets NW. One of its main responsibilities, according to several fire officials, is to make a quick dash to the White House in the event of a blaze.

“That’s why D.C. has a tower [truck],” says one longtime firefighter assigned to Tower 3, who asked not to be named because he feared getting in trouble with his superiors. If the president and his family are trapped above the first floor, Tower 3’s bucket, which can support the weight of several people, is supposed to be available for a mass rescue.

“We actually have a designated window we show up at,” says fire technician Mike Rogers, a 23-year department veteran whose job is to ride up in said bucket. Rogers says he’s been working on the truck ever since the department bought it in 2003.

Since April 2009, the truck has been out of service for a total of 519 days, according to records complied by some of the truck’s operators and provided to LL by the D.C. Firefighters Association, the union that represents the city’s firefighters. Fire crews have to keep records every time their trucks are out of service and the union tracks equipment issues independent of the department. The longest stretch, according to these records, was in the second half of 2010, when Tower 3 was out for 143 straight days.

The problems with the truck that’s supposed to save the president are small pieces of ammo in a growing war between Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe and the fire union, along with a vocal group of Ellerbe critics in the department. The battles run from the trivial, like what logo firefighters can wear on their clothing, to the more serious, like what’s the best schedule for working firefighters and who is responsible for equipment problems like those of Tower 3’s. Throw in accusations of racism, a touchy subject for a department with several past discrimination lawsuits, and you’ve got a recipe for a potentially explosive situation. (Yes, LL knows that pun burned.)

Tensions in the fire department were on stark display in the last few days, when rank and file firefighters were ordered not to misbehave at Mayor Vince Gray’s annual State of the District speech on Tuesday. The official logs at several fire houses noted on Saturday that, by orders of one of Ellerbe’s top deputies, any firefighter who acted improperly at the mayor’s speech or wasn’t in official uniform would face punishments for insubordination.

The orders followed a protest last month in which dozens of firefighters openly expressed their displeasure with Ellerbe. After the chief gave a “state of the department” speech, about a 100 firefighters stood up, turned their backs, and walked out of the MLK Memorial Library auditorium where the speech took place. The protesting firefighters were wearing DCFD-adorned gear, which Ellerbe has banned in an effort to rebrand the fire department as the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. (The department answers far more medical calls than calls to put out fires.)

Ed Smith, president of the firefighter’s union, says Ellerbe told him the orders had been misunderstood. Lon Walls, Ellerbe’s spokesman, says the chief wasn’t behind any such order. Regardless, the conflict that led to the walkout is obviously still smoldering (sorry, LL couldn’t resist). Walls took to his Twitter and Facebook accounts to decry the mostly white protestors. The protest, he said on Facebook, was “the most blatant, ignorant, and racist public display of disrespect I have ever seen.”

LL tried to talk with Ellerbe about the incident and other issues covered in this column but couldn’t get time with the chief. LL had to cancel an interview last week due to a sick kid; Ellerbe cancelled a rescheduled interview on Tuesday. LL emailed extensive questions to Ellerbe but did not receive a response by deadline.

The chief isn’t new to controversy. At a news conference introducing him as Gray’s pick to be fire chief in 2010, Ellerbe had to fend off questions about why he claimed a D.C. homestead tax exemption while he’d been living in Florida. (Ellerbe blamed his accountant.) Ellerbe also made headlines in early 2000, after he was briefly appointed interim fire chief. The American Civil Liberties Union took up the case of firefighters who said they were unfairly transferred by Ellerbe for speaking up about problems in the department. When new Fire Chief Ronnie Few took over, one of his first acts was to void Ellerbe’s transfers, according to reports in the Washington Times.

Ellerbe also came under fire in 2009 when the Times reported that he’d been put on “leave without pay” from the fire department while he took a job as a fire chief in Florida, an odd arrangement that had the potential to net Ellerbe several hundred thousand extra dollars in pension payments but unraveled under the media spotlight. Ellerbe has maintained there was nothing inappropriate with the arrangement.

These days, his critics say Ellerbe is ruining the department by focusing on trivial matters. Among the biggest flash points (okay, LL is done now): Ellerbe’s recent proposal to change firefighter shifts from 24 hours with three days off, to 12-hour shifts six days in a row with three days off. Ellerbe says the proposal would save the District money and would improve public safety by having more alert firefighters. His critics say the move is worse for public safety and is a backdoor attempt to force firefighters who live far from the District—read: white ones—to resign. Only about a quarter of the fire department’s force lives in the District. Many live far away, in Pennsylvania or even North Carolina.

Another gripe: the state of the District’s fleet. Emergency equipment in busy urban areas gets a lot of use and tends to wear out quickly. The industry standard average life of a front-line ladder truck is 18 years, while in the District that falls to only six years, according to statistics submitted by the department to the D.C. Council. Fire officials estimated last year that the department is three years behind schedule in replacing equipment, and Ellerbe said at a council hearing that he’s committed to getting the department back on schedule.

Which brings us back to Tower 3, the truck that’s supposed to save the president. Rogers and the other Tower 3 firefighter say the truck has had frequent problems both with its engine and the hydraulic system that raises and lowers the bucket. Rogers says he’s been in the bucket before when its controls didn’t work. An inspection done by one of Tower 3’s crews—after the fire department’s shop said it had fixed the vehicle—found an oil leak, a broken emergency light, problems with the ladder’s controls, and a “burning metallic smell” coming from the engine, among other problems.

Since you’re probably wondering: If there is a fire at the White House and Tower 3 is out of service, a regular ladder truck would take its place, and the president and his family would scamper down a ladder to safety one by one. A spokesman for the Secret Service declined to comment on Tower 3’s sorry shape. But LL seriously hopes the suits who guard the president aren’t actually depending on a truck with a bucket attached to save the most powerful man in the Western world if his house catches on fire. Indeed, even one of Tower 3’s crew says he seriously doubts his truck’s role figures high in the Secret Service’s presidential fire rescue plans.

Ellerbe’s critics acknowledge that the fleet issues date back to former Chief Dennis Rubin and beyond, but say the problems have gotten worse under Ellerbe because he’s done little to fix the department’s repair shop. At one point last week, according to Dabney Hudson, second vice president of the fire union, five out of the District’s 16 ladder trucks were out of service due to mechanical problems. As of Monday, the department said it only had two ladder trucks available in reserve, meaning that if there was a catastrophic event that required the mass mobilization of the department’s force, there wouldn’t be enough equipment for everyone to use.

“They’d have nothing to ride on,” says Hudson. “We’d have to push them down the street with wheelbarrows.”

But Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who has long chaired the committee that oversees the fire department, says responsibility for equipment problems lies not with Ellerbe, but with the administration of former Mayor Adrian Fenty—for spending capital dollars on dog parks and school renovations instead of buying emergency equipment. Of course, it ought to be noted that the Fenty administration did take a peculiar interest in making sure that a resort town in the Dominican Republic had fire trucks, but that’s a very long story.

“This is not new, and this is not the current chief,” says Mendelson.

Mendelson also took the long view in the current fracas between the chief and the department. He says the complaints he’s currently hearing from firefighters echo the same complaints he’s always heard, regardless of who is in charge.

“Every chief is the worst,” says Mendelson.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

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