Washington, D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Chief Kenneth Ellerbe announced June 5 that he will retire in July following 30 years of service to the city, counting among his achievements the establishment of several programs intended to increase the safety of its residents.
“I’d like to thank Chief Ellerbe for all his years of service to the people of our city,” said Mayor Vincent C. Gray. “His effort and dedication have been commendable, and I wish him well in all his future endeavors.”
Ellerbe, an African American and native Washingtonian, was chosen by D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray in 2011 to manage the 2,000-member department. Although some of his decisions were not well received by the department’s old guard and union, Ellerbe will be remembered by native Washingtonians for willingness to address the past discriminatory practices in the department.
“White boys ruled the D.C. fire department no matter who is the chief,” said Lon Walls, former public information officer for the DC Fire and Emergency Medical Services (FEMS). “Ellerbe made some drastic changes that did not sit well with the union and the status quo. People don’t like change, especially when it might affect their livelihood.”
Approximately 25 percent of FEMS personnel reside in the District. The rest come from as far as New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia.
“The long established schedule favored non-District residents,” Walls said. “Ellerbe wanted a new schedule that included three nights or days on and three days off. The union went wild.”
Walls also recalled a year in which the department answered 170,000 calls for service.
“People would call the fire department for stubbing their toes. Many times 50 percent would be at emergency rooms waiting for hours,” said Walls.
Ellerbe also drew fire for the re-establishment of a cadet program which allowed D.C. high school graduates to train for positions as firefighters and emergency medical technicians for the department, and for moving more Blacks into management positions, changing the nature of the department.
“It takes a special kind of guy to run into a fire. But more than 85 percent of the calls to the fire department were unrelated to fires. We needed more personnel trained to handle emergency situations of various kinds,” said Walls. “But many firefighters had this real macho-type attitude, as if the entire department revolved around the work they did less about 10 percent of the time.”
Under Ellerbe, the department’s achievements have included an increase in the fleet of ambulances, pumper and aerial ladder trucks; more paramedics hired from the cadet program; and outreach to military veterans; and a paramedic training program at the University of the District of Columbia.
Ellerbe also secured a funding for a capital improvement modernization of several FEMS fire stations, and instituted measures that reduced response times, getting EMTs and paramedics to high-priority calls on average more than a minute faster.
“This was a dream for me when I became a firefighter, in 1982,” Ellerbe said in a statement. “I will be eternally grateful to Mayor Gray for believing in me. He showed tremendous strength and fortitude in allowing me to do this job.”
“I’ve checked all the boxes of the things I said I would do when I was hired. Very quietly, we’ve modernized the department. I have no regrets,” Ellerbe said.
D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) battled constantly over the new direction in which Ellerbe took the department, and asked for his resignation on more than one occasion.
“FEMS has enormous and urgent challenges to overcome,” Wells said in a statement. “We can resolve these issues with strong leadership, sound management, and a new culture of excellence. That opportunity now stands before us.”
“I will do everything I can to ensure that the urgent issues that have gone unaddressed are dealt with immediately, including concerns over staffing, hiring, and the condition and maintenance of the fleet,” Wells added. “We cannot let a transition in leadership stall progress in making sure our first responders are fully equipped and wholly staffed.”
“That’s interesting,” Ellerbe wrote in an e-mail, in response to Wells’ statement.
Assistant Chief Eugene Jones will be promoted to interim fire chief. Jones is also a native Washingtonian and graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School in 1978. He later became a member of the Prince George’s Fire Department and served in various capacities for more than 27 years, eventually serving as its fire chief before becoming the assistant chief of operations at FEMS in November.