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Fire the Fire Chief? Welcome to Washington

As of last fall I’ve lived in the Washington area fifty years, a bit less than half of them in the Maryland suburbs, then a bit more “in the District,” as we say here. I can attest that the capital city of the most powerful nation in the history of the world has sufficiently serious infrastructure problems that an intergalactic visitor might well wonder how the country ever attained that status.

Chief Ellerbe

Probably the most well known of these problems is that the city, and thereby the federal government, shuts down if we get more than a few flakes of snow. (You might think the tea party Republicans would rejoice, but it costs quite a bit: roughly $70 million a day for the last really big event in 2010.) There have been claims of improvements in the city’s snow readiness lately, but the feds take no chances: Early in the morning on the 6th of this month they told employees to stay home in advance of the storm dubbed “snowquester” (which, however, turned out to be an instance of a frequent occurrence in DC, a predicted storm not showing up).

Part of the problem is our divided government. You may say that other world capitals have the same situation, a city government and a national government; however, apart from the fact that the citizens of London or Paris have representation in their respective countries’ parliaments, while we DC residents have no representation in Congress (just a non-voting delegate as with American Samoa or the Virgin Islands), there is an important demographic difference. The U.S. Congress that has statutory jurisdiction over DC is mostly white; the DC government that Congress lets run local affairs (as long as it doesn’t engage in no-nos like funding abortions for poor women) has been mostly African-American: The City Council become majority white only last year, while the mayor is still black.

(Apart from those two centers there is an unofficial organization called the Federal City Council, made up mostly of business people, which wields a lot of influence in city affairs, although historically it has been somewhat shadowy. It has no Wikipedia entry, and its listed website has apparently gone off-line since Google’s last cache dated a week ago. Update: March 31, 10:20 PM Eastern: its website works now.)

In passing, divided government is arguably responsible, at least in part, for another famous infrastructure boondoggle involving the subway system called “Metro” (or “Metrorail” as opposed to “Metrobus”). Namely, unlike most subway systems that do not operate 24/7, ours does its maintenance work during operating hours, specifically on weekends and after 10 PM. During these times Metro typically shuts down the track normally used for trains heading in a given direction and makes them share the track with trains headed in the opposite direction, staggering the times when each has the track. This results in delays which are officially announced in advance as from 15 minutes to 30 minutes, depending on details, but which in practice are often longer.

When pressed, Metro officials have said that there is no alternative to the weekend track work, since the few early morning hours when the system is not open are insufficient to move the equipment they need in and out. But what is key, it seems to me, is that the feds work 9-5 weekdays, and for a time window from a couple of hours before that to a couple of hours after they need an efficient transportation system to get their (mostly white) workers in from the suburbs in the morning and back in the evening. It is the (mostly black or Latino) menial workers who have to work nights or weekends, and whose lives are therefore disrupted by the setup. If the situation were reversed you can bet that Metro would quickly find a way to do its maintenance outside of operating hours.

All that is by way of background to my subject today, the city’s emergency medical service. Like everything else in town it has been plagued with problems. Examples:

Earlier this month, a D.C. police officer was seriously injured in a hit-and-run and had to wait 15 minutes for an ambulance from neighboring Prince George’s County, Md., because no city ambulances were available. Two days later, a man suffering a stroke had to be taken to a hospital on a fire truck because the nearest ambulance was nine miles away. The department also struggled with slow response times on New Year’s Day, when dozens of firefighters called in sick in what their union denies was an organized sickout.

Thus the day before yesterday the City Council’s public safety committee held a hearing lasting some five hours where the head of the Fire/EMS Department, Kenneth B. Ellerbe and to a lesser extent deputy mayor Paul A. Quander, Jr., received a grilling at the hands of the committee’s chairman Tommy (“a liveable, walkable city”) Wells, and of the Council’s Chairman himself, Phil Mendelson (both white, whereas Ellerbe and Quander are black).

An aspect of the meeting played up by the local rightwing media is that Ellerbe admitted to having operated with faulty data on the state of readiness of the ambulance fleet until quite recently, provoking a response from Mendelson: “I just don’t understand how the chief of the fire and EMS department would not know how many vehicles are available.”

But according to reports it was Wells (who btw has mayoral ambitions) who told the chief his job was on the line. And here enters one Patrick Mara, who distinguished himself in 2008 by causing the loss of the Republicans’ only seat on the Council, namely, by running against the popular member Carol Schwartz from the right in the Republican primary, defeating her, and then of course losing by a large margin in the general election. Five years later he is again running for a Council seat, in a special election to be held next month (and has the Washington Post’s endorsement), and it is undoubtedly in this connection that he has already called on the mayor to replace Ellerbe, in the wake of a no-confidence vote in the chief by the firefighters’ union (over issues described here).

So the upshot is that in the special election on April 23 for an at-large seat on the DC City Council a campaign issue, with marked racial overtones, is likely to be whether or not the fire chief should be fired. And if he survives that test, the mayoral election in 2014 may provide another.

But would the replacement of Chief Ellerbe actually cause city ambulances to get to emergency situations with dispatch at last? Your guess is as good as mine, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Update March 31, 2013 7:15 PM Eastern

When I wrote this post I had not yet seen this weekend’s issue of our “alternative” weekly Washington City Paper, but its “Loose Lips” column turns out to be about Ellerbe’s situation. It was written before last Thursday’s committee hearing, but notes some points not covered by the reports on the meeting itself that I have seen.

As a whole this article seems sympathetic to getting rid of Ellerbe. (CP grew out of the “hip capitalism” movement of the early 1970s which wanted the freedom to smoke dope and use four-letter words in print, but was not big on social reform; thus today it is fairly subservient to the city’s white establishment, if it hardly realizes the fact.) Still, it reveals such points as that Wells and Mendelson were already suspicious of the chief before the meeting. And we learn that even as the union was issuing its vote of no confidence, “outside the union hall Monday, a group of African-American current and retired firefighters held a rally to show support for Ellerbe.”

As a curiosity, I note that according to the article there is a special fire truck for the purpose of rescuing the President if fire breaks out at the White House. The article makes an issue of the fact that it is currently broken. However, I’ll lay odds that the WH security people have contingency plans for such an event that don’t rely on local government.

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E. F. Beall

E. F. Beall