D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe says he's making changes and working to improve relations with the department's union.
Embattled D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe isn't giving up -- but he is lowering the temperature.
Appearing on the WAMU 88.5 Politics Hour on Friday, the chief told host Kojo Nnamdi that he's trying to make nice with the fire department union that's voted 'no confidence' in his leadership.
"I would characterize our relationship as..." [and this is where he took a long pause] "...cooling off right now."
Ellerbe is under fire from several D.C. councilmembers for misstating the readiness condition of fire vehicles and ambulances. He said he's hiring a civilian, professional fleet manager. Ellerbe explained uniformed officers are better focused on fire fighting and ambulance service.
As of Friday, Ellerbe said 20 engines were not in service, while 33 others were. Ten trucks weren't working; 16 were. And the chief said that 51 ambulances were out of service, but another 39 were available for duty, with 14 more reserved for duty.
The readiness of the force has been a major issue with the Local 36 firefighters union.
The union also has said the department has done little to correct a major staff shortage of paramedics. Ellerbe said there are paramedic shortages across the nation and that he's trying to hire former military personnel with experience.
But one of the recurring complaints from some firefighters, councilmembers and others is that Ellerbe -- appointed chief more than two years ago -- retains his job because of a close relationship with Mayor Vincent Gray.
When asked about that relationship Friday, Ellerbe said only, "I'm a subordinate agency director under the mayor."
But News4 then played a television clip from the station in January 2011 when Ellerbe said he had known and respected Gray since Ellerbe was 14 years old. Ellerbe's father worked for Gray when Gray headed the Department of Social Services in the early 1990s.
And on one other contentious issue, Ellerbe, who is African-American, disputed some complaints that racial strains affect hiring.
"First, we don't hire based on race," he said.
He later added: "Regardless of where a person comes from, once they put on that uniform, the expectation is that they will serve the citizens of the District of Columbia."
Although Mayor Gray is standing by the embattled chief, Gray's deputy mayor for public safety Paul Quander has been assigned to ride herd on the agency, even testifying with the chief before the D.C. Council.
Several staffers say Quander has encouraged Ellerbe to moderate his relationship with the union and has helped Ellerbe better craft his management improvements.