Tommy Wells calls for resignation of D.C. Fire Chief, Deputy Mayor

(WJLA) - In a press release issued on Tuesday, D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells wrote a letter to Mayor Vincent Gray calling for the resignation of Deputy Mayor for Public Safety, Paul Quander, in addition to the resignation of the Chief of the Fire and EMS Department, Kenneth Ellerbe.

Wells’ statement included the following:

Yesterday I chaired an oversight hearing to give the Gray administration a chance to explain what happened in the Cecil Mills case—in which five firefighters failed to respond to a personal plea for help at the firehouse door. Specifically, I wanted to hear the Mayor’s plan to fix the situation so it will never happen again. The administration's response was deficient and disappointing. Our city deserves better.

In fact, there is no plan—or even apparent capacity—to rectify the failings of the DC Fire and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Department and restore public confidence in reliable emergency response. Therefore I am calling on Mayor Gray to immediately ask for the resignations of the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and the Chief of the DC Fire/EMS Department.

I was stunned to learn that the Mayor’s representatives had no plan to respond to the Mills case beyond disciplining the firefighters who failed to assist Mr. Mills, who suffered a heart attack across the street from their firehouse. The only additional corrective action was to issue a memorandum reminding firefighters to “follow the rules.”

But my response is not based on a single incident. There is systemic mismanagement throughout the department that was evident even before I became chair of the council committee with oversight of public safety one year ago. The department has a consistent record of failure. The shortcomings evident in the most visible and horrifying incidents—in which citizens like Mr. Mills have lost their lives—are just the tip of the iceberg.

From burning ambulances, uncertified fire trucks, and no procurement plan to adequately equip our fire and emergency personnel, to a shortage of paramedics, delayed response to emergencies, and poor training and management, this department has enormous and urgent challenges to overcome. Yet the administration has no coherent plan to improve the department’s performance.

Blaming racial divisions, union membership, or other perceived motivations for the department’s dysfunction must end. It is a disgrace to place responsibility on the rank and file employees who put their lives on the line for DC citizens every day. Whatever the divisions in the department, only strong leadership, sound management, and a new culture of excellence can resolve them

At a mayoral candidate forum on Tuesday night, Wells insisted that Ellerbe and Quander must go in order to restore public confidence:

"I've been very patient and given them every chance possible to rebuild this department, come up with a plan, and show how it is how they're going to fix it -- and they have not."

ABC7 spoke with some of the other candidates at the forum, and Reta Jo Lewis thinks this is purely political on Wells' part.

"Those who are running for office should not have to wait to run for office -- especially when they chair the committee and start calling for people's resignation," she said. "That's what oversight is all about."

Wells was recently endorsed by Local 36, a firefighter union that is often at odds with Chief Ellerbe. But he said that his patience with the department's incompetence shows this is not political.

"I've had enough and the city has had enough," he said.

No candidates would flat-out say whether Ellerbe and Quander should resign, but they had their opinions.

"I think the mayor has allowed the situation at the fire department to persist for too long," said Muriel Bowser.

"There is a lot of internal bickering, internal fighting, stuff going on that I think needs to be addressed immediately," added Andy Shallal.

"Looks like we need a new fire chief," said Jack Evans. "I think he has lost the confidence of the firefighters and really the public at this point in time."

But Pedro Ribeiro, spokesman for Mayor Vincent Gray, spoke with ABC7 and described Wells' letter as "an idiotic political stunt.”

“You don’t get to demand the chief’s resignation when you block his efforts to change the department," he said, referring to the ambulance re-deployment plans.

“He’s [Wells] slipped to fourth or fifth place…he’s trying to find traction with something.”

Ribeiro added that the mayor is standing by both the Deputy Mayor and Fire Chief.

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