Marie Mills wants Kenneth Ellerbe fired. She is the daughter of Cecil Mills, the man who collapsed near a DC firehouse. Marie Mills was with her father January 25 – waiting for firefighters to cross the street. Waiting for help that didn’t come.
Ms. Mills wants to know why Chief Ellerbe isn’t held accountable. The city’s report about her father’s death never mentions the chief. Not once. Yet, Kenneth Ellerbe is the man in charge of the DC Fire and EMS Department. Marie Mills wonders how the chief escapes scrutiny. If you give me a few minutes I can answer that question.
The buck never stops at Kenneth Ellerbe
The report, written by DC Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul Quander, illustrates errors and even negligence by a half dozen firefighters from two different fire companies. It resulted in a failure to get help for Cecil Mills in a timely manner. That alone suggests a systemic problem that speaks to Chief Ellerbe’s running of the department.
But look at the bigger picture. The Mills incident is the latest in a long list of failures in the three years Kenneth Ellerbe’s been in charge. The following are just some of the issues the chief ignored until they became headlines.
- Chief Ellerbe failed to hire paramedics.
- Chief Ellerbe failed to buy fire trucks and ambulances.
- Chief Ellerbe failed to maintain apparatus.
- Chief Ellerbe failed to set up a background check program for current employees.
- Chief Ellerbe failed to make sure enough firefighters and medics were on duty for New Year’s Eve 2012 when someone else died while waiting for help.
Just like in the Mills case, Paul Quander spoke for the administration on many of these issues. Quander always talked tough, like he did again on Friday.
Listening to Paul Quander you get the impression he actually holds the people under his command accountable. But the reality is different. He doesn’t hold his fire chief to that same standard. In Paul Quander’s world it’s never Kenneth Ellerbe’s fault.
When a reporter relayed the sentiments of Ms. Mills to the deputy mayor on Friday, Quander’s response was, “This isn’t about Chief Ellerbe. He wasn’t at the firehouse door when someone came asking for help.”
Quander’s 13-page report reinforces his personal belief that the failure to help Mr. Mills has nothing to do with Chief Ellerbe. As Marie Mills accurately points out, you will not see one mention of the chief of the DC Fire and EMS Department in the report. The name “Kenneth Ellerbe” is nowhere in the document.
This same report is referred to as “scathing” by many reporters covering this story. But study it closely. You will discover the report is ridiculously flawed and virtually useless. The key to reaching this conclusion is focusing on what’s not in Paul Quander’s report.
Words you never heard from Paul Quander – “We will leave no stone unturned … ”
It’s probably smart that he avoided this cliché because Paul Quander has proven he’s not very good at this stone turning thing.
When Quander decided “this isn’t about Chief Ellerbe” there were a lot of stones he don’t even glance at, much less turn over. The report didn’t address any of these connections to Ellerbe.
- After learning of Ms. Mills’ allegations, Chief Ellerbe failed to immediately put the entire crew on desk duty or administrative leave. This is standard operating procedure during a serious investigation.
- Chief Ellerbe never put the probationary firefighter on desk duty or administrative leave. He remains on full duty at a different firehouse. This is the firefighter people ran to for help and should have been a focus of the investigation.
- Chief Ellerbe’s admission that he called the probationary firefighter after the incident, while the probie was under active investigation by the department’s internal affairs unit. Ellerbe told a reporter the call was “personal”.
- The handling by Chief Ellerbe and his staff of previous disciplinary actions, if any, surrounding the 2012 arrest of the lieutenant who was in charge at the firehouse.
- Any role Chief Ellerbe or his management team may have had in creating a culture that allowed such a dereliction of duty.
How can Paul Quander make recommendations to ensure such negligence doesn’t happen again when he fails to consider the role of the man in charge?
The “bells” are the key and they don’t even get a mention
All of the missing elements I listed above actually pale in comparison to one glaring omission in Paul Quander’s report. It’s so basic it should make you immediately question whether this report has any value. It involves the actions of the probationary firefighter.
Here’s challenge for you. Ask any DC firefighter what they would do in this scenario: A citizen runs up to you at the firehouse watch desk. He says a man is down across the street. What is the first thing you do?
I already knew this answer, but I’ve been asking that question of every current and former DC firefighter I’ve run into in the last month. Without hesitation, the reply has been the same from everyone – “Hit the bells”.
This is basic. You don’t try to track firefighters down individually or send someone to walk around the firehouse looking for the officer in charge. You hit the damn firehouse bells and everyone shows up immediately.
Firefighters react instinctively like Pavlov’s dog when they hear that bell. It doesn’t matter if they’re in the bunk room sleeping or studying, on the toilet in the bathroom or at the kitchen table eating dinner.
Quander’s report never addresses the probationary firefighter’s failure to hit the bells and turn out Truck Company 15 for the man down across the street.
Could it have been overlooked because Paul Quander doesn’t even know that this is the procedure in every DC firehouse?
If he is aware of the procedure, Quander doesn’t talk about it. The word “bells” doesn’t even appear among the 13 pages.
How can you tell the citizens what went wrong when you can’t explain the right thing to do?
Why didn’t the probie hit the bells?
Finding out why the probationary firefighter failed to take the proper action is another crucial topic never discussed in this report.
If Paul Quander really wanted to discover why the probie didn’t use the proper procedure he should have asked these three questions.
- Did the fire department’s training academy fail to prepare the firefighter for the basics of firehouse life?
- Was it the leadership at the firehouse that failed to provide this training?
- If training wasn’t the issue, was this just a bad hire for the department?
You may ask why I’m focusing on this lowly probationary firefighter when so many others at the firehouse and the 911 center failed to do their jobs.
The answer is simple. Despite what Paul Quander’s report would have you believe, that firefighter is the key. If he had just hit those bells, in all likelihood I wouldn’t be writing this, there wouldn’t be a report and either Cecil Mills would have lived or only his family and friends would have heard of his passing.
Why didn’t Quander focus on the probie’s actions?
Answering the three questions I posed about training would require Paul Quander to pick up one of those stones with Kenneth Ellerbe’s name on it. It would also bring up a very controversial topic in the department. It’s a place Paul Quander clearly doesn’t want to go.
The Washington Post recently reported the probationary firefighter in question is a recent graduate of the department’s high school cadet program. That’s another fact you won’t find mentioned anywhere in the Quander report.
The cadet program, started in 1986, was stopped during Chief Dennis Rubin’s administration. It has a long history of problems connected with hiring, training and standards that Rubin found problematic.
Unlike the apparatus, paramedic and background check issues previously mentioned, the high school cadet program was — and is — a clear priority for Kenneth Ellerbe. The chief brought it back and it’s now essentially the only way to become a DC firefighter.
According to reporter Amy Brittain’s February 8 Washington Post article titled, “Aftermath of 77-year-old’s death brings focus to D.C. fire cadet program”, Ellerbe’s cadet program struggles with some of the same issues as before. Brittain even reported that the probationary firefighter we’ve been talking about had some serious trouble during training.
Any thorough investigation into someone failing to follow basic department procedures would have looked at the training and employment record of the individual involved. If Quander did either of those things, he didn’t tell us about it.
Is it because Paul Quander is trying to prevent further scrutiny of the cadet program, protect Chief Ellerbe, or both?
Am I expecting too much from Paul Quander and his report?
The answer to that question is probably yes.
None of us should lose sight of the fact that this report is not an independent analysis of the events surrounding the death of Cecil Mills. Paul Quander made it very clear to everyone from the start, he would be doing the investigating.
Many fire departments, when faced with such a controversial allegation, would have handled this differently. In order to provide credibility and transparency, they would have placed the investigation into the hands of an independent outsider. Or possibly brought in some credible outside experts to assist with an internal report.
This investigation also wasn’t handed off to the Office of Inspector General for an independent review.
The Quander report is an investigation by a political appointee with a clear stake in its outcome. Paul Quander’s own reputation is on the line.
In addition, Paul Quander has a poor track record in the credibility department thanks to his handling of previous fire department controversies.
Quander’s history of redirecting our attention
You may recall Paul Quander is the guy who raised suspicion last year that DC Fire & EMS Department ambulances were being sabotaged or set on fire. Quander said this to reporters even though he already knew from the department’s own fire investigators the ambulances burned because of maintenance problems. The police investigation ordered by Quander came to the very same conclusion.
Quander is the same guy who had a great deal of success in getting the press and public to believe there was a New Year’s Eve 2012 sick out by DC firefighters. But according to an independent report released in 2013 by the inspector general, the staffing shortage was caused by something very different. The IG described it as a clear failure by Chief Ellerbe and his command team to properly manage the department.
You get the impression one of Paul Quander’s chief jobs is to set up diversions and smoke screens to keep the public and the press from looking closely at how Kenneth Ellerbe has managed the department. Like the ambulance fires and the sick out that didn’t occur, could this report be just another diversion?
Marie Mills is right and Paul Quander is wrong
Let’s go back to the beginning and Paul Quander’s response to Marie Mills Friday when she called for Kenneth Ellerbe’s firing. Quander said, “This isn’t about Chief Ellerbe”.
If Quander was honest with Ms. Mills his answer should have been, “This actually may be about Chief Ellerbe, but I am going to make damn sure no one can come to that conclusion”.
Both Paul Quander and Marie Mills used the word “accountability” in their interviews on Friday. Only one of those two people knows what that word means. Marie Mills was absolutely correct in wanting to know why Kenneth Ellerbe’s name isn’t in that report. The reply from Paul Quander was inadequate and misleading.
Let’s be clear. The District of Columbia government didn’t just fail the Mills family on January 25 when no one responded promptly to an urgent call for help. It failed the family again on February 21 when Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul Quander issued his report.
Marie Mills had every right to go after Chief Ellerbe. This report shows she shouldn’t stop there.