Mary Cheh wants D.C. Fire Chief Ken Ellerbe to resign

The fire chief is now facing a call from a D.C. councilmember to resign. Photo: D.C. Fire/EMS

The mounting controversies surrounding D.C.'s fire department and its chief, Ken Ellerbe, has led one member of the city's council to call for his resignation.

D.C. Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh called for Ellerbe to resign in a letter to fellow councilman Tommy Wells. The letter, dated Tuesday, indicates that Cheh believes that residents of the D.C. have lost confidence in Ellerbe's ability to effectively lead the department and protect the city.

"This is what I think is a department in disarray," Cheh said. "(It) seems he no longer has control or confidence of the rank and file."

Cheh's call for Ellerbe to resign comes less than a week after Wells and the D.C. Council rejected a department plan to redeploy the city's maligned ambulance fleet to busier times and locations based on need. City officials said that the fleet's state of disrepair, issues with overtime payments and consistent staffing shortages made the plan untenable.

She says that the judiciary committee report rejecting the department's plan "the last straw" when it came to her support of Ellerbe as the city's fire chief.

"It made such a devastating indictment of how the department is being managed," she said.

Ellerbe said Tuesday that he has no plans to resign and has nothing to say to Cheh or the rest of the D.C. Council.

"The committee believes that approval of this plan could have serious consequences for public safety and so cannot, in good conscience, recommend approval at this time," Wells said last Friday.

After the rejection, Cheh hinted that she thought Ellerbe should quit.

"I think if you have a department that is so crucial to saving lives and providing emergency help, you can't afford to have the kind of indifferent leadership that he's shown," she said.

Serious problems with ambulance deployment and response times came to a head in March when an MPD motorcycle officer was hit by a car in Southeast Washington.

Three units that were supposed to be on duty but improperly declared themselves out of service did not respond, and the officer had to wait nearly an hour for mutual aid from a Prince George's County ambulance.

Several city employees were disciplined after the incident, and a subsequent report noted that nearly half of the city's fleet of ambulances were out of service.

"He doesn't know about the deployment of personnel, and whether it's indifference or negligence, it just seemed to me that he's running the department into the ground," Cheh said.

But Ellerbe insists improvements are being made.

“I know that we have been working very diligently behind the scenes to get this EMS system right,” he said Tuesday. “I know that we inherited an awful mess and that we are committed to getting it cleaned up.”

The only person who can fire Ellerbe is D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, who appeared Tuesday at a public event with the chief.

“I think the chief should be permitted to run the fire department just the way the police chief is,” Gray said.

On Monday, more revelations of malfeasance against the department surfaced. Several sources say that in at least three instances, D.C. Fire inspectors manipulated inspection reports at a trio of Northwest Washington businesses.

“We will always take action if wrongdoing occurs,” Chief Ellerbe told ABC7’s Kris Van Cleave. “I don’t want to presuppose that any wrongdoing occurred. I’ll let the investigation carry forward.”

The department has also faced allegations of sexual abuse of female firefighters and recruits.

Multiple sources tell ABC7 that it's highly unlikely Gray would let go his close, personal friend. On Tuesday, when ABC7 caught up with the mayor, he wasn't aware of Cheh's letter calling for Ellerbe's resignation.

“I don't know anything about it … haven't seen a letter," he says.

Deputy Mayor Paul Quander, who insists the department is improving, issued a statement Tuesday, saying in part:

“Many of the incidents that Chief Ellerbe has dealt with during his tenure have been rooted in issues that preceded his hiring. There is still work that needs to get done to make the department the best it can be. I support Chief Ellerbe in his efforts to make that happen.”

ABC7's Mary Kay Mallonee contributed to this report.

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