Your DC update: Chief Ellerbe won’t stop to talk about private ambulances taking over special events. Former Chief Rubin gets a brutal book review.

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I’ve finally come to the conclusion over the last few days the best thing former DC Fire & EMS Department Chief Dennis Rubin could have done for his reputation and legacy was to not write the book “DC Fire”. The headlines about the department over the last year or so may say everything that needs to be said and probably bolsters his image a lot more than whatever Rubin could say about his time  in charge in DC (more on The Rube’s book in a moment).

It has come out since Friday that the situation is so bad in the department private ambulances have been brought in to handle special events details at Nationals Park and the Verizon Center. This is all related to the severe shortage of paramedics and a fleet that is in shambles. On top of that, the current chief, Kenneth Ellerbe, is once again seen walking briskly away from TV cameras, refusing to sit still and talk with reporters about the serious problems facing the department. Here’s some of what WTTG-TV/Fox 5 reporter Paul Wagner wrote:

Four private ambulances were used to transport patients at Monday night’s Nationals game and a concert at the Verizon Center, and they will be in place at Nationals Park again Tuesday night. There were so many breakdowns over the weekend, fire department mechanics couldn’t keep up.

On any given day, D.C. Fire and EMS has 39 ambulances on the street around the clock with four ambulances in reserve. But there were so many breakdowns since last Friday the fire department had to draft mechanics from other agencies in order to get them back in service quickly.

It is a situation Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe did not want to talk about when we caught up with him walking down U Street on Tuesday.

I’m so glad I retired from TV news before this administration came into office. With my fat gut I’m not in shape enough to be running after the fit Chief Ellerbe like reporter Paul Wagner has been doing while trying to get some questions answered. I needed a nap after just watching the video. The most useful quote from the fast walk down U Street with the chief on Tuesday may have been, “Don’t push me sir”.

Andrea Noble of The Washington Times is also writing about the need for private ambulances after Chief Ellerbe provided a fairly optimistic evaluation of the prospects for the summer at a council hearing in April saying, “I’m confident in our equipment and I’m confident in our personnel.”

As for The Rube, though he hasn’t been a fire chief for two-and-a-half years, he is also taking a big hit this week from the local news media. Will Sommer, who writes Loose Lips (LL) for the Washington City Paper, posted a column online Monday titled, “LL Reads Dennis Rubin’s D.C. Fire So You Don’t Have To”. It isn’t kind to the former chief or his book. Actually the review is quite brutal. It gets on Rubin for a number of things starting with this comment:

Rubin’s book, which is meant to teach fire officials how to deal with crises, totally avoids one of the biggest scandals of his term: the donation of a fire truck to a Dominican Republic town.

In the video below you will see how the chief handled this mess as it played out initially during a city council hearing on April 1, 2009. It was far from Rubin’s best moment, but I was convinced then and still am now that the chief and the department were forced to be the fall guys for this mini-scandal involving close associates of Mayor Adrian Fenty. The inspector general’s report on the whole affair can be found here. Sommer is right that an honest look at that caper by Rubin would have added great value to the book. Possibly instructing our nation’s future fire chiefs on how to avoid being put in that position.

More from the April 1, 2009 hearing on the fire truck & ambulance donated to Sosua, Dominican Republic: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4You can find the inspector general’s report and more details here.

Sommer also writes that Rubin uses the book to settle scores, describing his antagonists with everything but their names. In fact, I am one of those who gets the full Rubin treatment (as does the City Paper). He talks about me in the first chapter as the reporter who had been a volunteer firefighter and had a reputation for being “difficult for years”. Guilty as charged. But I’m pretty sure you will find his facts are wrong when he claims I was the reporter asking pointed questions about Rubin’s race at the 2007 press conference where Mayor Fenty introduces his new fire chief.

While Sommer didn’t find much he liked in the book, I believe there are some valuable parts for future fire service leaders. In particular, I was intrigued by the chapters describing why Rubin stopped the cadet program, the importance of background checks and how the Secret Service refused to allow a large number of firefighters to take part in Inaugural events because of their pasts. Those topics are a lot more useful than finding out what celebrities the chief hobnobbed with, which is something else Sommer highlights:

The best “What is Rubin thinking?” moment, though, comes the day after President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Rubin had been promised a spot in Oprah Winfrey’s studio audience for her broadcast from D.C., but two fires are holding him up. At one fire, Rubin encounters an elderly woman and a mentally handicapped man who eventually died from their injuries. Later, Rubin’s stuck at a fire that’s spreading between row houses. “At the rate we were going, I would likely miss my chance to be in Oprah’s studio audience,” Rubin moans.

Rest assured, reader, Rubin makes Oprah’s taping, where he gives her a fire department shirt. “How great was that for branding DCFD to the world?” Rubin says.

While he has never explained why, Dennis Rubin suddenly stopped speaking to me about four-years-ago. To be fair, this blog began about the same time he took the job in Washington. It put him under the microscope where his triumphs and failures were on display almost daily for the rest of the fire service to see.  That was something a little bit new at that time and I’m sure it wasn’t always pleasant. It very well could be the reason behind the silent treatment.

I still want to do my best to be fair to the former chief. Dennis Rubin is invited to use this space to write a response to the book review (unedited by me), promote “DC Fire”, and talk about me any way that he would like (I sure talked about him a lot for almost four years). 

While I don’t believe the book is as useful a teaching tool as it could have been, I know for some it will at least be entertaining to view the inside of the often troubled DC Fire & EMS Department through Rubin’s eyes and learn what one fire chief thinks of Dave Statter. That reason alone may be worth the price of admission.

By the way, I am also making the same offer of writing a response to his critics to the current chief, Kenneth Ellerbe.

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