Hundreds of D.C. firefighters packed a Northeast D.C. union hall Monday morning where they voted "no confidence" in Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe.
It was a vote that went overwhelmingly against the chief.
Union leaders say Ellerbe is putting public safety at risk with a depleted staff of paramedics and a shabby fleet of vehicles while the chief’s defenders say it’s all about an unpopular shift change.
337 firefighters cast secret ballots Monday. Only 37 voted they still had confidence in Chief Ellerbe.
It is a vote that came 12 years after the last “no confidence” vote and three days after an inspector general’s report questioned whether the department could respond to a mass casualty incident.
Things got a bit testy outside the union hall on Bladensburg Road, NE, where firefighters casting ballots came face-to-face with Ellerbe supporters.
The 300 who voted "no confidence" in the chief discussed the issue in the union hall before folding their votes and slipping them into the ballot box as they left the building.
Ellerbe's trouble with the union and its membership began soon after he proposed doing away with the platoon system where firefighters work 24 hours on and 72 hours off.
Instead the chief wants to go to 12-hour shifts to better handle a high volume of medical calls.
But the union says it’s more than that.
"If we don't have the right staffing and the right tools and the right training, we can't be the best department in the country,” said Union President Ed Smith.
The firefighters’ vote comes on the heels of embarrassing stories in which an injured D.C. police officer waited 20 minutes for an ambulance while a stroke victim was transported to the hospital in a fire engine.
The union says attrition has left well over a hundred jobs unfilled while the inspector general found the department’s fleet of vehicles and its repairs a dysfunctional mess.
But Chief Ellerbe's supporters say the trouble comes from firefighters resistant to change.
"Chief Ellerbe sees for the future we need to be working shorter shifts, more intervals and that doesn't comply with a lot of people who live far away from here,” said firefighter Garry Wiggins.
Retired firefighter Nathan Queen added, "I think the chief is a good manager. He was called here to manage and that's what he is doing. Are there those that don't want to change? Yes, and that's why they are having this vote of no confidence against the chief because their biggest issue, Local 36’s biggest issue is the shift change.”
In a statement, Chief Ellerbe responded to the vote by saying:
“I am very optimistic about the department's future and encouraged by the service we provide to District residents and visitors. I remain deeply committed to resolving the issues before us. I look forward to strengthening our capabilities and putting our resources to better use in order to uphold the confidence of those we serve every day.”
Union President Ed Smith says he plans to lay it all out on the table this Thursday when Councilmember Tommy Wells holds a special hearing on D.C. Fire and EMS and the condition of the fire department’s fleet of vehicles.
By the way, the no confidence vote will not force any action. Instead, it's just a way for the firefighters to show their confidence, or in this case, their lack of confidence in their chief.
D.C. Fire Fighters Association Local 36 President Ed Smith issued this statement today about the vote of no confidence in D.C. Fire & EMS Department Chief Kenneth Ellerbe:
“With a two year record of failed leadership that includes:
Scathing IG Report detailing mismanagement of the department’s fleet creating dangerous gaps in coverage for large scale incidents. New information shows Chief ordered maintenance staff to replace department logos while broken down apparatus sat idle and preventive maintenance and annual ladder inspections needed to be done.
Dangerously high and unaddressed attrition rate of paramedics that threatens the lives of D.C. residents everyday who are in medical distress.
Failure to properly staff Advance Support units as currently dictated by the Fire & EMS roster
Failure to provide critical protective equipment until after four fire fighters was seriously burned.
Management by intimidation, threats of discipline and illegal transfers as retribution.
The members of the District Fire Fighters Association have overwhelmingly -- we have No Confidence in Chief Ellerbe.
The motion affirmed by the members today comes after D.C. Fire & EMS has been in the news repeatedly over the last two years for specific problems that have resulted in dramatic concerns about public safety – and these issues arose because of the Chief’s failures in the eyes of the members of the organization that represents the over 1,800 sworn members who provide fire, rescue and EMS services to the residents, workers and visitors of our city.
If this was simply a question of mere incompetence, that would be a start, but this is much more than that – it has become a public safety issue.
Fire Chief Ellerbe now has a two-year record that has resulted in a failed approach to leadership that has needlessly endangered the public through excessive delays in response due to staffing and fleet mismanagement, and dangerous situations for the fire fighters who are sworn to protect the citizens and visitors of our city.
It’s a sad day when those who serve this city see no other recourse but a vote of no confidence, however our membership feels strongly that Chief Ellerbe is ethically bankrupt; and his poor managerial practices places our members and the public needlessly in harm’s way.
Despite the current climate of inept leadership we are dealing with, I want to make it very clear that the members of DCFEMS remain committed to providing the highest quality fire and EMS services possible.