I-Team investigation: D.C. Fire & EMS: Firefighters speak about department in disarray

Chief Kenneth Ellerbe

In recent weeks, D.C. Fire & EMS has been issues with problems, including delays in response times and female cadets accusing male instructors of harassment. Now, three firefighters have come forward to talk exclusively about a department they say is in disarray.

The firefighters say the department, led by Chief Kenneth Ellerbe, is in a state of crisis.

“I think the citizens need to know they are not safe,” says one.

Two requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation. All three admit they've butted heads with, and been unfairly disciplined, by Ellerbe.

But firefighter Robert Alvarado, an outspoken critic of Ellerbe, was undeterred.

“I think he should be terminated,” Alvarado says.

Their solution to improve service, staffing and morale is simple: They say the chief needs to step down.

Ellerbe declined to comment for this story.

The issues plaguing the department have been documented: An injured D.C. police officer waited nearly 20 minutes for an ambulance because none was available. Eventually, a Prince George's county unit arrived, sparking an investigation.

A report on the incident placed most of the blame on rank-and-file EMTs, not chief Ellerbe. In all, seven District employees have been referred for "appropriate personnel action" over the incident.

In addition, two female fire cadets allege two male instructors harassed them at the training academy, a program re-started by Ellerbe. Those allegations also ignited an investigation.

And union officials say critical staffing needs, like hiring paramedics, isn't happening and that deteriorating fire equipment isn't being replaced quickly enough.

“The apparatus fleet is in complete disarray,” Alvarado says. “If we had another terrorist attack on the District of Columbia, we are not prepared to handle it.”

Even the chief recently talked about these challenges.

“We know that we are at a tipping point in terms of providing service to the community,” Ellerbe said earlier.

Ellerbe has stated publically that he could save money and lives if he could just move firefighter shifts from 24 to 12 hours and redeploy overnight ambulances to busier call times. But members are fighting back and talking out.

“We've gone back 20 years in two years,” said one of the firefighters, who declined to be identified.

Ellerbe's staunchest critics say he's untouchable because his two bosses, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and D.C. Deputy Mayor Paul Quander, support him.


Quander insists the fire department is ready for any emergency and that Ellerbe is a competent, qualified leader who can manage the department's difficulties.

“Have there been some bumps in the road? Absolutely. Will there be in the future? Yes,” Quander says. “Do I have confidence in the chief? I do.”

But some firefighters fear it's too late and that the department's difficulties are already impacting public safety.

“The citizens are paying the price. They deserve better,” Alvarado says. “They deserve much better. It's the nation’s capitol. If there's anyplace that deserves the best it's the capitol of the united states of America."

The mayor's spokesperson offer the following statement that in part reads, “taxpayers are not getting the best value out of this system.” But he stressed that, “schedule and ambulance reployment changes proposed by the chief would move D.C. Fire and EMS into the 21st century.”

He added, “We realize change is difficult but we must align the department with the needs of the District, where 80 percent of calls are for medical services.”

The fire union's no-confidence vote on Ellerbe is slated for Monday.

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