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DC’s former mayor wants hearing about fire department fleet he helped destroy

Vincent Gray was more interested in license plates & logos than working fire trucks

This tweet (above) should have had me doubled over in laughter. That would have been my reaction if the whole situation wasn’t so sad and predictable. In a series of articles, Washington Times reporter Julia Airey has been all over the DC Fire & EMS Department about its significant apparatus problems. Airey’s tweet last Wednesday identified three city council members who told the reporter they’re considering oversight hearings into the fleet issues. Good. Hearings should occur and I’m sure the current administration has some things to answer for.

I’ve circled in red the part of the tweet that’s so laughable and sad. It’s the twitter handle of one of the three council members — @VinceGrayWard7. For those who aren’t familiar with the name, Vince Gray was District of Columbia mayor from 2011 to 2015. It’s not a stretch to say that Mayor Gray and his fire chief, Kenneth Ellerbe, are most responsible for the department’s current and dire fleet situation.

Gray and Ellerbe were aided and abetted by a city council that has, for decades, failed to comprehend, provide real oversight and properly act on what is needed to improve fire, EMS and 911 in the Nation’s Capital. To be fair, the fire and EMS apparatus issues in DC have cropped up quite regularly for the better part of four decades. It’s also fair to say the current administration and council underestimated how much was needed to fix things after the gutting by Gray and Ellerbe. That said, any honest hearing into why things are so bad in 2018 would have to acknowledge the fingerprints of Vince Gray and Kenneth Ellerbe everywhere they look.

l-r, former Chief Kenneth Ellerbe, late Deputy Mayor Paul Quander, former mayor and current Council member Vincent Gray

Thanks to excellent reporting during the Gray administration by reporters Paul Wagner, Andrea Noble and others, STATter911 was able to share and comment on the destructive efforts of Mayor Gray, Chief Elllerbe and the late Deputy Mayor Paul Quander as it happened (see below). It was an embarrassing era that began with Ellerbe’s hiring in January 2011.

Kenneth Ellerbe was a former DC deputy fire chief who had become the fire chief in Sarasota County, Florida. At his confirmation hearing, presided over by Phil Mendelson, now the Chairman of the Council of DC, not one question was asked about a well-publicized scandal involving Ellerbe’s departure from the DC Fire and EMS Department in 2009. The deal arranged for Kenneth Ellerbe was an effort to game the pension system to give the then 49-year-old Ellerbe benefits he could only get if he stayed on the job past age 50. That was done by having Ellerbe officially listed as a DC employee while working as a Florida fire chief. Much to Ellerbe’s disappointment, the scrutiny by the news media eventually brought an end to that deal and the approximately $600,000 Ellerbe would have received over five years.

Despite this very significant ethical cloud, Vince Gray appointed Ellerbe while Mendelson and his fellow council members approved the hiring. It set the tone for the coming years as the new team made decision after decision that had little to do with providing the best fire and EMS service and a lot to do with settling scores and furthering political agendas. While they couldn’t be bothered trying to prevent Ellerbe’s appointment despite obvious reason to do so, it eventually dawned on council members that the public wasn’t being served by his leadership.

There are many, many stories from the Gray/Quander/Ellerbe era that show a fire department in a rapid, downward spiral. Below, I’ve provided links to some of the ones directly related to the state of fire apparatus today. When describing what Vince Gray and Ken Ellerbe did for and to the DC Fire and EMS Department, I often cite two stories that best describe their priorities for these key city services. Among Ellerbe’s first acts as chief was to order the much overworked, understaffed and under qualified maintenance shop to focus on changing logos on every fire truck and ambulance in DC. This even included the broken ones that had been sitting outside the shop for months. The logo that was on the apparatus personally offended Ellerbe. As for Gray, his priority when visiting DC’s firehouses was not on the failing apparatus inside, or how well the department responded to emergencies. His focus was outside. Mayor Vincent Gray was more concerned about license plates. Not the plates on the fire apparatus. It immensely bothered Gray that so many cars and trucks belonging to the firefighters did not have District of Columbia tags. Vince Gray’s key concern was something no one whose life was saved by a DC firefighter, EMT or paramedic has ever asked the rescuer–“Where do you live?”

When politics, and not public safety, is the priority of government leaders, it shouldn’t be a shock to anyone, especially Vince Gray, that you can’t get the basics right–like providing a safe and fully operational fleet of vehicles to respond to emergencies. Good luck with the hearing you requested Council member Gray. If you’re lucky, no one will read the following list, and your fellow council members will forget everything that occurred on your watch that screwed DC Fire & EMS. It will be just like the previous council forgetting your fire chief nominee had a giant skeleton, not in his closet, but out in the open for everyone to see.

2/28/13- Is it fraud or mismanagement? DC Council member asks for another IG investigation following testimony of Chief Ellerbe on mechanics’ overtime.

3/7/13- Controversy all around, DC’s Mayor says he has confidence in Fire Chief Ellerbe. Deputy Mayor wants to know why 10 ambulances were out of service when cop needed help.

3/13/13- UPDATE – DC fire chief admits bad information about fleet given to city council. Ellerbe says maintenance chief at fault will retire. Thanks union for bringing it to light despite mayor’s aide saying IAFF is ‘fabricating’ apparatus stories.

3/14/13- Your nightly DC reader: New deputy chief in charge of apparatus faces cameras in absence of chief & deputy mayor.

3/15/13- What did the fire chief know & when did he know it? Washington City Paper raises questions about deputy chief’s retirement & Chief Ellerbe’s knowledge of faulty fleet list.

3/16/13- Latest from DC: Like Detroit, ladder trucks in Nation’s Capital not inspected. Chief says lack of reserves last year is the reason.

3/18/13- Reporter ambushes DC’s Deputy Mayor & still can’t get answers on fire department fleet. Union believes ladders untested since 2009.

3/21/13- More from DC: ‘Confidential’ letter on staffing from Chief Rubin to Chief Ellerbe. Report says DC having trouble finding all its ambulances. EMS union head speaks. Details on another inspector general report of department.

3/22/13- UPDATE – IG report on reserve fleet has columnist again asking what did the fire chief know & when did he know it?

3/28/13- DC update: Chief & dep. mayor on hot seat. Ellerbe apologizes. 58 of 111 ambulances not operational. Firefighters union says fleet status is due to chief’s negligence.

3/29/13- UPDATED – News report: While apologizing to council for giving wrong info on reserve fleet, DC fire chief & dep. mayor again gave wrong info about reserve fleet.

4/16/13- UPDATED – More questions about DC fire department’s readiness: Inspections sideline two reserve ladder trucks. City’s former emergency manager says fleet is a ‘true concern’.

6/10/13- UPDATED – More apparatus & staffing issues in DC: Audit confirms major fleet problems. Council member’s visit to 911 center confirms ambo shortage. Mayor & chief say it’s out of context.

7/5/13- More DC news: Paramedic coverage in neighborhoods reduced to handle July 4th events. $12 million lawsuit over delayed New Year’s response. Fire truck breaks down on way to fire. Chief says he’s not resigning.

8/13/13- UPDATED: Another DC ambulance burns. Third fire in a little more than a month.

8/13/13- UPDATE: DC deputy mayor wants cops to investigate today’s two ambulance fires. Fourth vehicle fire since July 4th for DC Fire & EMS.

8/14/13- DC fire chief speaks. Chief Ellerbe talks at length about fleet problems on live TV this morning.

8/14/13- Getting uglier in DC: Deputy Mayor strongly defends getting police on the burning ambulances case. Union shows picture of street sign being used as an engine heat shield.

8/18/13- DC update: Fire investigators determined ambulance fires were accidental before deputy mayor called for police investigation.

8/21/13- UPDATE: Assault complaint filed against DC Chief Kenneth Ellerbe. Firefighter says his cellphone forcibly taken after ambulance burned.

9/5/13- Your DC update: Chief Ellerbe gets rid of another dep. chief in charge of apparatus maintenance. Council member reacts to paramedic’s letter.

11/27/13- Read report that DC officials told one reporter did not exist. Consultant describes fleet in critical state.

12/5/13- DC fire chief grilled about apparatus & EMS staffing. Can’t account for no new apparatus in 2013 budget or say where new ambulances are deployed.

12/10/13- DC update: TV station shows Chief Ellerbe that many big cities are able to inspect ladder trucks & pumpers.

12/26/13- DC update: Consultant says progress but still problems with fleet. More on former PGFD chief as ops chief.

9/8/14- The embarrassing legacy of Kenneth Ellerbe – 40% of DC’s ladder trucks fail inspection & are sidelined

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