The man selected as the interim D.C. fire chief beginning July 3 will take the position with confidence.
Eugene Jones’ first big challenge will come just 24 hours after he takes over as interim chief, when tens of thousands of people crowd the National Mall for the Fourth of July fireworks. While he’s never had to manage that event, it’s nothing new for the firefighters and paramedics he’ll lead, he said.
“I am confident, since they have already faced these challenges over their career, I think they will be up to the task,” he said.
As the interim chief, Jones will face several challenges. One of the biggest will be restoring the faith of the public after numerous cases where the department did not live up to expectations. Jones said one of the reasons the department has an image problem is because the press focused on Chief Kenneth Ellerbe and a few high profile incidents like the death of Medric Mills across the street from a fire station.
“I would like to see the focus shifted to the good deeds of the men and women that occur every day so that the media can sample what the citizens sample -- that they get great service,” he said.
Another major problem Jones will try to fix is the relationship between the rank-and-file and management. Under Chief Ellerbe, many firefighters and paramedics felt they could not complain openly without fear of retaliation. Those days are over, Jones said.
“Freedom of speech is something that we cherish, and I believe employees should be able to talk about issues that they fell that it’s important to them,” he said.
He said he’ll prove that to the men and women he leads by interacting with them on a daily basis.
As for those who may still have concerns, “I think the public need not worry,” he said. “I believe our employees respond in a fabulous manner every day.”
He said he’ll try to stay out of the spotlight and shift the public’s focus.
“My style is it is better that people see the employees and the good work that they do because I’ve had my 15 minutes of fame, I’ve been a chief in another department,” he said.
Jones said he won’t rush into the proposed shift changes Chief Ellerbe had been pushing that caused so much friction between management and the union.
“It’s not my job to look at what Chief Ellerbe did,” he said. “It’s my job to say once I take the reins of the department to chart a course and I should collaborate with those partners.”
Jones grew up in D.C. and went to Wilson High School. He’s only been with the department for about eight months, but he has served as a fire chief before.
“I have been the chief of Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department for about 18 months, and prior to that I was in the Office of Homeland Security in Prince George’s County for about two years, and then I spent about 24 years in Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department,” Jones said.
But before his decades of service in Prince George’s, Jones was on a different path.
“I went into what would be considered a monastery or whatever, and I spent about two or three years there just studying the Bible and talking to people about Christ,” he said.
Jones said he didn’t know Ellerbe or Mayor Vincent Gray before taking the job.
Who will ultimately be fire chief is up to the next mayor.
Independent candidate David Catania has said he wants the next chief to come from within the department, but Democratic nominee Muriel Bowser has said she’ll look at current members of the department but also conduct a nationwide search.