Embattled D.C. fire chief steps down

Mayor Vince Gray, left, listens as his then-nominee for fire chief Kenneth Ellerbe, center, and police chief Cathy Lanier, right, listens to a question, Dec 16, 2010. Ellerbe announced Thursday that he is stepping down from his post after three years at the helm of the Fire and EMS Department. (AP File Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)

WASHINGTON — The day after announcing the end to his tenure as D.C. Fire Chief, Kenneth Ellerbe appeared relaxed — almost relieved — as reporters paraded in for interviews.

That he was going to step aside wasn’t a question. The “when” has now been established: July 2.

The most visible moments during his three years at the helm were department blunders that resulted in high-profile and widespread criticism.

Among the events: serious delays, after ambulances were unavailable or went to the wrong location; ambulance breakdowns and fires and the neglect of a dying man across the street from a fire station.

But Ellerbe doesn’t hesitate for a second when asked how he leaves the department.

“Better,” he says.

In support of that, he says the average ambulance on the streets is about two years old. When he began, the workhorse in the fleet was about five years old.

“We have started hiring paramedics, which is something they hadn’t done in ten years here,” he says. “Our response times have been reduced since 2013 to now by over a minute.”

He calls his proudest achievement the cadet program, which prepares recent D.C. high school graduates to become firefighters.

One cadet even told him the program probably saved his life.

But Ellerbe couldn’t escape the failures that became embarrassing headlines– particularly the neglect of Cecil Mills across from a fire station.

“All of it falls at my desk, plain and simple,” he says. “I think that we have had some challenges with some of our employee behavior and activities, but I take responsibility for it. I’m not going to take the blame for it because I wasn’t there on the scene, or I wasn’t responsible for failing to render care.”

Numerous council members — including the two running for mayor — no longer see him as the man for the job.

As such, when Mayor Vince Gray lost his re-election bid this spring, Ellerbe knew he would be headed for the door.

“I think that it’s important that the fire department gets a chance to move on,” says Muriel Bowser, Ward 4, who defeated Gray in the Democratic primary. “The chief taking himself out of the equation, I think, is quite honorable, and it will allow a different set of eyes to get us through these next months.”

The timing was actually part of Ellerbe’s thinking, with the mayoral election still months away.

“It gives the next person an opportunity to demonstrate his skill set and his ability to manage the agency, with enough time for people to evaluate his effectiveness,” he says.

An interim chief will take his place in July.

“I think it’s an opportunity to reset,” says Councilman Tommy Wells, Ward 6, who chairs the committee overseeing the fire department.

While long critical of the department’s missteps, Wells says he’s only interested in focusing on preparing the next fire chief for the job.

Specifically, he cited maintaining the ambulance fleet and hiring sufficient paramedics as priority objectives.

Additionally, labor and management still need to hug and make up, after rounds of finger pointing following response blunders.

“I would like the interim chief to focus on bringing back the confidence in the department,” Bowser says.

Ellerbe calls his roll as fire chief a “lifelong dream.” Also, it was humbling.

In less than a month, he’ll step aside.

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