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Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe’s retirement effective today

Washington, D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe's tenure ends today, amid problems and controversy despite the support of Mayor Vincent Gray.
Washington, D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe's tenure ends today, amid problems and controversy despite the support of Mayor Vincent Gray.

Washington, D.C.’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe officially retired from his job today. According to news sources, a dinner was held for him last evening. Ellerbe made his announcement to retire on June 4. Eugene Jones, assistant fire chief of operations, will be the interim chief. Jones arrived into the department in November 2013. A national search is likely to look for a new candidate.

Ellerbe served more than 30 years in the fire department and served three years as fire chief. Mayor Vincent Gray appointed him in December 2010 in which Ellerbe started his term in January 2011; however the recommendation came under scrutiny. The Washington Times investigated Ellerbe and came up with these results prior to his appointment –

But the appointment of Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe to lead the 2,000-member D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department raised questions. Chief Ellerbe, a 27-year veteran of the D.C. fire department, briefly served as the city’s interim fire chief in 2000. He last served as the department’s director of community outreach before leaving in August 2009 to lead the fire department in Sarasota, Fla.

The Washington Times reported in December 2009 that when Chief Ellerbe left the city to take the Sarasota job, instead of resigning from the department, he departed under an unusual personnel exchange agreement that placed him on leave-without-pay status.

More on this story can be read here.

Ellerbe believes he did an efficient job as the Fire and EMS Chief but his term was plagued with problems. Despite the dilemmas, Mayor Gray greatly supported him. Ellerbe further emphasized this –

“And I want to be very clear; Mayor Vincent Gray and Deputy Mayor Paul Quander have been extremely supportive. We knew the challenges going in. We set a road map and we have checked those boxes."

Ellerbe said his leadership helped eliminate budget crunches, created by excessive overtime pay, that existed before his tenure began.

"We don't have that issue anymore," Ellerbe said. "The fleet was in a deplorable state. Now the fleet's in a better position. We have a pipeline of paramedics and cadets. So, versus 2011, we're in a much better position. The person who will be replacing me will be receiving the department in a better condition than I found it.”

But that did not stop the furor in the department – ambulances out of service, ambulance breakdowns (including an ambulance bursting into flames in August 2013), paramedic shortages, slow response times, and low morale from firefighters. in their Capital Comment segment provided the following about Ellerbe’s tenure –

What else went wrong during Ellerbe’s term?
A lot. Ellerbe’s fire department was embarassed by slow response times, and constant labor disagreements over compensation and shift scheduling. During his tenure, after the number of ambulances not in the shop dipped as low as 39. After being hammered by bad press, Ellerbe ordered the purchase of 30 new ambulances last year forcing the District to contract with private ambulances or get assists from neighboring jurisdictions, but the added ambulances did little to repair the department’s image.

Did he have anything to do with the guy who died across the street from a Northeast DC fire station?
Not directly, but when Medric “Cecil” Mills, an elderly city parks employee who suffered a heart attack across the street from a fire station on Rhode Island Avenue, Northeast, and later died despite his daughter’s cries for help, his leadership was tarnished further. Mills’s death was just as big a scandal for the department’s rank-and-file, and Ellerbe tried to delay the sudden retirement of the lieutenant who was in command when Mills died.

Did Vince Gray fire Ellerbe?
According to the Washington Post, which broke the news about Ellerbe’s retirement, he says he is not being pushed out. But during a February mayoral debate, Gray was the only one out of eight Democratic candidates who praised Ellerbe’s performance. The other seven, including eventual Democratic nominee Muriel Bowser, said they would boot him. Bowser’s general-election rival David Catania has said the same.

What happens next?
“It’s been very hard to manage the agency,” DC Council member Tommy Wells, who has oversight of the fire department, tells Washingtonian. “There’s been such a battle between [labor and management].”

Ed Smith, the president of the union that represents most DC firefighters, told WNEW the department was close to paralysis under Ellerbe and that he wants the rank-and-file to have a hand in picking the city’s next fire chief. Assistant Fire Chief Eugene Jones, a longtime veteran of the Prince George’s Fire Department who joined the DC department in November, will take over for the duration of Gray’s lame-duck period.

“This was a dream for me when I became a firefighter in 1982. I will be eternally grateful to Mayor Gray for believing in me. He showed tremendous strength and fortitude in allowing me to do this job,” Ellerbe said in a statement.

The video below provides comments from Kenneth Ellerbe on his retirement.

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