The embarrassing legacy of Kenneth Ellerbe – 40% of DC’s ladder trucks fail inspection & are sidelined

DC reserve ladder trucks fail inspection 1


It was announced last night (Sunday) that forty percent of the ladder trucks in the District of Columbia have been taken out of service because of failed ladder inspections. This latest news from the fire department protecting your Nation’s Capital is shameful and embarrassing. It was also totally predictable.

I’ve never been a fire chief, yet I knew, without a doubt, this day would be coming. Somehow the man who was the chief of the District of Columbia Fire & EMS Department for more than three years never showed a bit of concern that this would be a problem.

DC Ellerbe, Quander

Don’t let anyone BS you about why this happened. It is completely due to the actions of former Chief Kenneth Ellerbe and his chief apologist, Deputy Mayor Paul Quander. It’s the very obvious result when your priorities are changing the logo of the department and worrying about where your firefighters live instead of making sure fire trucks, ambulances, firefighters and paramedics are on the streets answering 911 calls.

In 2011, his first year in office, Chief Kenneth Ellerbe ordered that each of these now broken ladder trucks have the seal of the department scraped off the doors and replaced with a logo more to his liking. Ellerbe’s order not only covered the ladder trucks, but every pumper, heavy rescue, air unit, ambulance, medic unit, haz-mat unit, SUV, van and car in the department’s fleet. And he squandered more time and taxpayer money removing the blasphemous four letters DCFD and that unsightly seal from every firehouse in the city and anywhere else it appeared.

Kenneth Ellerbe had the maintenance shop and other employees do all of this instead of making sure the ladders on those trucks were properly inspected and maintained. As you may recall from previous stories, the chief also neglected the maintenance of the rest of the fleet. Remember the images of the burning and broken down ambulances? The ones Quander and Ellerbe intimated were sabotaged by firefighters despite the department’s own fire investigators telling the two men that the fires were caused by poor maintenance.

DC ambulance 27 burns 2

Yes, the chief who told us that EMS was now a priority under his leadership, couldn’t keep the ambulances running either. Despite this clear evidence of incompetent leadership, so many people, including Quander and the editorial writers at The Washington Post, continued to make apologies for Kenneth Ellerbe. They blamed the problems instead on those nasty firefighters.

I wasn’t buying any of it, because I knew better. And so did a lot of other people. Anyone who witnessed what this same department experienced starting in the late 1980s through the mid 1990s knew exactly what happens when you not only neglect maintenance but fail to properly replenish the fleet with new apparatus. I should say anyone but Kenneth Ellerbe. Because, while I lived through it as a reporter covering the department, Ellerbe lived through it as an actual member of the department.

But just in case Kenneth Ellerbe forgot there were days in the 90s when the department only had three ladder trucks available to cover the entire city, there was something else to warn him about the impact of his backwards priorities. I’m referring to an item I’ve mentioned before, the transition document prepared in late 2010 by Ellerbe’s predecessor Dennis Rubin.

DC transition document

Read entire transition plan (and please note the seal on the cover page)

As many of you know, I’ve been very critical of some of what The Rube did (especially his book), but that document was an honest evaluation of the challenges ahead for the new fire chief. It really was a crystal ball. It recommended to Ellerbe that issues at the maintenance shop and the purchasing of new apparatus should be priorities for his administration.

But Kenneth Ellerbe seemed to hate everything about Dennis Rubin. This included not only the document written by The Rube, but that department seal we mentioned earlier. That logo with the U.S. Capitol building in the center was created during Rubin’s time as chief. Ellerbe also didn’t like that Dennis Rubin allowed the acronym DCFD to be part of a department that was known officially as the District of Columbia Fire & EMS Department.

Could this hatred of everything Rubin have anything to do with the special deal that Ellerbe gained and then lost under Rubin’s watch? It allowed Ellerbe, for a while, to be a fire chief in Florida while still officially listed as an employee of the District of Columbia. Who knows? But it has been reported Kenneth Ellerbe lost lots of money from his pension when that deal was rescinded.

Still, maybe I’m over thinking this. Could it be something less complicated? Could it be that Kenneth Ellerbe actually started reading Dennis Rubin’s transition plan but didn’t need to look beyond the cover page to figure out his priorities? Because right there on the cover, above the words “Department Transition Plan”, is the Rubin seal that Kenneth Ellerbe so hated.

Maybe it was that one sheet of paper that inspired the major achievement of Kenneth Ellerbe, the re-branding of the entire department. A policy that today’s news show us is very much akin to the legend of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Or if you prefer a musical analogy, is very much like the story of the world renowned pianist who complains about the horribly out of tune piano he’s forced to play at a music hall where he’s performing. When his complaints reach the general manager of the venue, the response is, “What’s wrong with the piano, we just had it painted?”

Whatever his reasons, Kenneth Ellerbe ignored his department’s own history, along with the very clear warnings of Dennis Rubin. Kenneth Ellerbe also played out an agenda that put a priority on petty side issues that, despite the rhetoric from Ellerbe and Quander, really had absolutely nothing to do with serving the public.

Now, the citizens of and visitors to the District of Columbia will once again pay the price. This is the true legacy of Kenneth Ellerbe. How sad.


Tonight (Sunday), The Washington Post is reporting that seven of DCFD’s 16 ladder trucks are out of service because they failed inspection. But unlike during the Ellerbe administration, this news wasn’t leaked out with the chief refusing to talk to reporters. Interim Fire Chief Eugene Jones put out the news himself via a department press release.

Washington Post reporter Mike Debonis tweeted the release earlier this evening:

Martin Weil, The Washington Post:

In a statement issued Sunday night the department said seven of 17 ladder trucks, or more than 40 per cent, were found to have rust at the base of the ladder support. The department said the seven “will not return” to service “until the issues affecting them are resolved.”

Those trucks that remain available will be rotated to various locations to provide coverage throughout the city, the fire department said.

The department said it would increase the staff assigned to the operational trucks to bolster efficiency.

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