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Where’s DC’s fire chief & why were the accused firefighters still riding fire trucks?

More DC coverage: Background checks are another priority Dennis Rubin warned Kenneth Ellerbe about

Previous coverage of this story here & here

The latest version of what may have happened when a woman desperately tried to get firefighters to cross the street to help her dying father may be the most astounding thing we’ve heard so far. WJLA-TV/ABC 7 reporter Jay Korff claims in his report above from 11:00 last night (above) that sources tell him word was sent back from the officer in charge that those seeking help at the firehouse would have to call 911 instead.

There are a lot of different versions out there of what happened this past Saturday in the 1300 block of Rhode Island Avenue, Northeast. The information is leaking out little by little and has made news every day since WTTG-TV/ Fox 5 reporter Paul Wagner broke the story on Monday. In the fourth day of coverage it’s at the top of the Washington Post website’s home page (story here). I’ve also seen it carried on news websites across the country. If it hasn’t happened already, I expect a cable network or two to jump on this outrageous story.

Instead of handling this like professional managers should deal with bad news, Chief Kenneth Ellerbe, Deputy Mayor Paul Quander and Mayor Vincent Gray are showing us once again what rank amateurs they are in dealing with a crisis. Pay attention, there are lessons to learn from this trio.

Getting the bad news out and behind you as soon as possible is not a new concept in reputation management. But Ellerbe, Quander and Gray have been consistent for the past three years with what seems to be a policy that is the complete opposite of this concept. They have shown in almost every crisis that they believe the best tactic is to hide, delay, provide half answers and let the bad news come out little by little.

DC Ellerbe, Quander and Gray

If any of these three guys want to give you advise on handling a reputation issue, run the other way.

According to Marie Mills, whose father Medric “Cecil” Mills died, she knows Chief Ellerbe well enough to have called him Saturday about this incident. If, as reported, the fire chief knew about these allegations on the day they occurred, aren’t the fire chief’s bosses wondering why the chief didn’t  take this crew out of public contact status right away and try to get some answers immediately?

Isn’t anyone in charge in DC as astonished as Marie Mills that at least part of that same crew was back riding a fire truck the very next shift (yesterday). I know I was.

How do we know this about the crew? We know it because reporter Wagner was waiting for the firefighters as they rode Truck 15 to and from headquarters yesterday to be interviewed by those investigating this horrible incident.

So what is it? Did Chief Ellerbe think the allegations that have “outraged” Mayor Gray weren’t serious or credible enough to warrant what is standard operating procedure in most places (and has been in the past in DC)? Not taking this crew off the street Saturday until it can be sorted out says to the public, and Ms. Mills, this isn’t all that serious of a situation.

Leaders that care about things like transparency, doing the right thing and the image of the agency or city they lead don’t let a claim this shocking drag on in the news for four days (and getting close to six full days since the incident occurred).

Smart, effective leadership would have immediately taken the crew out of the firehouse and done enough fact finding to have clear answers even before a reporter started asking questions on Monday.

In addition, Chief Ellerbe, the man in charge, should have been out front from day one providing detailed answers and assuring the public this incident is not how his agency does business. Covering the department from 1982 to 2010, I’ve reported on some really, really ugly situations. But I have no problem stating emphatically that refusing to provide aid in this fashion is unheard of in the DC Fire and EMS Department. Why hasn’t Chief Ellerbe looked into the TV cameras and said those words (along with explaining what did go wrong)? Why hasn’t he told us the men and women he leads don’t operate this way?

I am sure some of you are saying I am wrong, that the Chief needs time to do a thorough investigation. This isn’t complicated folks. There were five people in that firehouse, including a rookie. Competent leadership could have found out over the weekend enough about why the crew didn’t respond to the plea for help to give answers to the public when Wagner started asking questions on Monday.

But we can’t blame it all on Chief Ellerbe. There is another agency involved in this story. That’s the Office of Unified Communications (OUC – DC’s 911 center), As some were trying unsuccessfully to get help from the firehouse across the street at least one call was made to 911. For some reason the responding units went 26 blocks away to the wrong quadrant of the city. Who made this error? Was it the call taker, the responding crews or the person who called 911?

The recording of the calls at OUC make that an easy one to answer almost instantly. So why haven’t the OUC leadership and Deputy Mayor Paul Quander provided clarity for reporters and the public?

The answer to that question is quite simple. Doing so would go against their policy of making sure bad news gets maximum exposure over as many days as possible. Let’s see how long they can stretch this one.





Comments - Add Yours

  • watchdogdc

    This is another failure under the watch of Chief Ellerbe. This is another citizen that had to die because of inept leadership under Chief Ellerbe and inept employees that are being hired. The total blame here does not rest with the rookie cadet in this case but what it does show is the lack of training or ability to be trained these individuals have. The only thing that matter to the Chief, Deputy Mayor and Mayor is that they are hiring city residents. I personally do not have a problem with the cadet program just the way it is being administered and the process being used to select the cadets which only targets hand picked schools and not the entire public school system which is evidenced by the makeup of the students. It’s amazing how Ellerbe has been allowed to keep his job with all of the negative things that have happened since his arrival. Keep in mind a recent IG Report that is available for review by the public on the Inspector Generals website details a different picture of the New Years Eve situation a year or so back which the Mayor, Deputy Mayor and Fire Chief accused the Firefighter Union of organizing a planned sick out that resulted in the death of another citizen due to lack of staffing. The results of the IG Investigation clearly puts that back on Chief Ellerbe and his administration for failing to ensure adequate staffing for the agency and for failure to properly plan for the staffing of all department emergency response units for that day. The Mayor and Deputy have continued to support Ellerbe through all of his failures which clearly shows they to along with Ellerbe have no Idea what they are doing when it comes to the public safety aspect of government.

    • RSRopeTactics1

      Here is another failure. We have the worst ice on the Potomac River in years. The fireboat/ice breaker John Glenn Jr is now the only fireboat in COG and all the way to the Chesapeake Bay for maritime response such as fires, pollution, plane crash, bridge suicide, child fallen through the ice, car in the water, train derailment, etc, etc., etc. In anticipation of a bad ice season the fireboat was scheduled to have work done to the hull at the shipyard last Fall. THE FIRECHIEF AND THE MAYOR TOOK THE MONEY AWAY FOR SOME OTHER USE AND THE NEEDED HULL WORK WAS NEVER DONE. Hope we don’t have a major ice incident!

  • fyrecapt

    OK, I have an IDEA.
    For starters, Fire Ellerbe, Fire the Mayor, Fire the public safety commission,. Then bring the unions involved together and, tell them shit is going to change. Hire a Fire chief that can promote positive change in DCFD, earn the publics trust, bring morale up, work hard to secure funding for personnel and equipment. Have sit down meetings with the employees to hear their concerns and ideas to make the dept better.
    Looking from the outside in, there are TOO many people and groups involved. Condense/limit the amount of “managers” involved in decision making, Seems like there is a chief or manager for every type of job.

  • fyrecapt

    One other thing…. the reason nothing has changed; Because nobody with power, money or close ties to the president has died under Ellerbes command. Rest assured, if a high ranking politician,or a person such as warren buffet were to die due to some sort of DCFD screw up, heads would roll!

  • volunteer for life

    Dave I stated many times on here that Rubin was not the villian he was portryed as by the union at certain times in his tenure. He had clear expectations and I believe he wanted to provide a very effective service to DC. This officer should be suspended and any other ff who new the event was unfolding until the truth is uncovered. At which time I am sure she will be terminated. IAFF what do you think?You want the people in that station to be your brothers if this is true? Call 911 wth? civilians will do more then that when they see trouble. Oh wait they did. Ran to the fd and where shunned. Paid or vollie we all have a duty to the people where ever we are. This hurts the true ff inDC.

    • Doing it

      Stop trying to make this a paid vs tick issue. This is a cadet issue.

    • CareerLt

      If you recall, The local in DC STRONGLY denounced the action of the union members

  • R2

    Dave, It seems you’re missing a soundtrack here. Please cue the theme tune for The Three Stooges. Thank you! It’s a shame to see how far DCFD has fallen.

  • I was like, what the what!

    It has not even been mentioned anywhere that every single arrest that has been in the news, has been a CADET. The rookie and the Lieutenant in this instance are… you guessed it, CADET’S. Why is this not being reported? Is it not an issue? This should at the very least, restructure how these employees are hired.

    Dave, help me out. Why is this not being reported?

  • Barney Miller

    HEY! Mayor Gray……still have “confidence in the fire chief”?….tell us about it! Come on Sir Mix A lot…spit! I have an idea Lets promote Ellerbe to deputy mayor of public safety so he can have a lasting AFFECT of all of public safety.

  • Deena Hall

    Hold up wait one minute being a CADET has nothing to do with this matter. Am a former CADET with 20 plus years on now and I give my all to the residents. This matter needed a quick action plan from the fire department heads and the elective mayor. I don’t agree with the handling of this matter at all. My coworkers and I put or life on the line for the residents each and every time we show up for work. How about the go things that we do where are the news people. I was born here I serve the community I live in now and grow up in and at my station on my shift 3 out of the 5 members do the same. Let’s real look at the problem it’s the 911 system all together if you receive several calls and not one of the many calls every thought or was told to check the other sector of the city. This problem started going do hill way before the knock on the door of the fire station. LOOK INTO THE 911 SYSTEM.

    • Wake Up

      Being a Cadet has nothing to do with it? Lets reverse the roles a little. 12 firefighter from Pennsylvania get arrested since October, and the rookie and the Lieutenant are also from Pennsylvania. Do you think that for one second that they would still have a job, or that it would not make national news. I think the city would probably change its policy on hiring from Pennsylvania. What is the difference. Because Cadets were born in the city they are somehow held to a lower standard. Being a Cadet has everything to do with it. Open your eyes and you will see it very clearly. It is called RACISM. Thats right, I said it, RACISM. It began with the Mayor the second that he hired his buddy without any proper vetting. The Fire Chief has made it his mission to get rid of, demote, not hire, white people. Its a shame that it has gone this far. Wake Up and smell the Racism. Do not stand up for these people because they are the same color as you. Be your own person. Wrong is wrong!

    • Ukfbbuff

      What’s so difficult about

      Declaring a “Still Alarm”,

      And Turning Out the Company with EMS Equipment and going across the street?

      911 is only part of the “Problem” in this incident

  • 2moreyears..

    HA! That’s the problem right now! All the wrong-doings are with African American firefighters! The bigot Quander and his cronies don’t know how to respond!!!!!

  • John Murphy

    What we have here is a failure of leadership. Guess the City council is OK with that.

  • firefighter mama
    Lets not forget what happened to the last fire fighter who went to the aid of a patient who showed up at a firehouse looking for help. He got demoted!

  • Volunteer from Va

    Why is she still at work? More to the point, 1. Why is she even wearing a Class A uniform while on duty. 2. Why is she attending an Internal Affairs interview while on duty. 3. Why did they drive Truck 15 to the Internal Affairs interview, taking it out of service. If department policy states that she must be paid for her time at the interview ( which is absurd ), why wasn’t she replaced at the station for the time she was at Internal Affairs so that Truck 15 would still be IN SERVICE at its station available to serve its community???!!

  • BllW

    Lt. Gerald Burton vs. DC FEMS

    I have been looking a little further into the story of DC Fire & EMS Lt. Gerald Burton. Lt. Burton is being charged with disobeying an order from a battalion chief, when his crew, on the way to training, began an attack on a row house fire.

    I’ve known Gerry for most of his career in the fire department (full disclosure: many years ago Gerry did some part time work at Channel 9). Talking to Gerry by phone on Tuesday, he told me that he believes the radio traffic and the AVL data, along with following “Rube’s Rules” about customer service, will vindicate him in this matter.

    What this story has been missing is any insight into what the brass at DC FEMS are saying. As I am sure you have heard, no one from the administration will go on the record, because it is a “personnel matter”. But on background, sources in the department are also pointing to the radio traffic and AVL data. They say that information will likely support the charges.

    The sources claim that Burton and Engine 9 were told to take the 3rd due position and that there was very little gap between Engine 9′s arrival and the 1st due engine company. The sources portray this as an important safety issue, saying that by freelancing and not assuming the assigned position on the fireground, Engine 9 put everyone in jeopardy.

    I don’t know which version of this story is correct, but I hope we will eventually get to see the AVL data and hear the radio traffic. The story has certainly attracted enough attention, that a few hard facts might help clear the fog a bit.

  • Milo 64

    Moe Larry and Curly are in Charge in DC….Now it all makes sense. Until you throw out the comedians and bring in professionals nothing will change

  • Ukfbbuff

    Yes,Dave it did get mentioned on MSNBC today

  • Bulletin 33

    As Dave mentions in his article, things are still beginning to trickle out, day by day. It is planned, so that the people who manage, can attempt to manage/re-direct each piece of information as it comes out. I have over 20 years on the job, and for the first time ever, I have a sinking pit, and a sick feeling in my stomach. This is not how I was trained, nor the thousands of other members who have come and gone before me – be they cadets, transfers, ex-volunteers, crossovers, people from other departments, or anyone else.
    The persons involved in this TRAGEDY, have neglected the number one tenet of the job with which we are entrusted: to help people, anyway we can, when they need us, without regard to race, sex, religion, creed, or place of residence. We have been doing this for years. We have complained about certain aspects of it for nearly the same amount of time, but we always did it. To let ANYONE die on a cold city street, with that person knowing that “sooner or later, they’ll come to help me – they’re only across the street” – is perhaps the most unconscionable and un-fireman-like behavior I can imagine. It is perhaps time for me, and others who have the ability, to hang up the helmets one last time, and put the badge away – before it becomes so tarnished, that it bears little resemblance to the one issued to me so many years ago.

    p.s. – Dave, your 7th grade grammar teacher would be appalled by your intermingling of ‘that’ vs. ‘who’.

    • DStatter

      I started writing the post at about 3 am and finished at 4:30, My proofreading skills were pretty gone at that point. Not that they are much better when I’m awake. Thanks for trying to keep me honest.