D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe acknowledged on Thursday that he led his agency for about a year using faulty data about the state of its fleet, and he apologized for repeated ambulance shortages that left the ill, injured and dying waiting for help.
During an emotionally charged D.C. Council hearing, Ellerbe said he had used inaccurate information about D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department vehicles for months.
"We were operating with an outdated list," said Ellerbe, who told lawmakers that current statistics show that nearly half of the District's 111 ambulances are out of service. "It was inaccurate for approximately a year."
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson was incredulous.
"I just don't understand how the chief of the fire and EMS department would not know how many vehicles are available," Mendelson said as lawmakers continued to absorb a scathing report from the D.C. inspector general that said the department's fleet was unprepared for a catastrophic emergency.
Ellerbe also issued a public apology for the high-profile ambulance shortages that led to fresh criticisms of the department.SClB"I'd like to offer my sincere apology to the patients and families," Ellerbe said. "I am deeply troubled by each of these incidents."
Thursday's hearing took place more than three weeks after a Prince George's County ambulance had to take an injured D.C. police officer to the hospital because the city didn't have one available.
That episode, first reported by The Washington Examiner, was sandwiched between two other high-profile ambulance shortages, including a New Year's Eve incident in which a man died while waiting for aid.
Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul Quander on Thursday blamed that episode on "a state of an emergency when 100 firefighters deliberately decided not to come to work," while firefighters contend it was the result of Ellerbe's approach to managing the department.
Edward Smith, president of the union that represents D.C. firefighters, used Thursday's review to take aim at Ellerbe's track record.
"The D.C. Fire and EMS Department is living on borrowed time," said Smith, whose members voted Monday to declare they had "no confidence" in Ellerbe, a rebuke that did not move city leaders. "This unfortunate set of circumstances has happened because of the backward priorities of Chief Kenneth Ellerbe," Smith said.
Ellerbe, who has enjoyed Mayor Vincent Gray's publicly unflinching support, later described some of the criticism as "rightfully earned" and said he was "committed to this city."
But Ellerbe backer Alvin Bethea said the recoil against the chief was "truly despicable and the work of the devil."
Bethea also implored the council to not participate in "an attempt to assassinate Chief Ellerbe's character."
But Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells, who presided over Thursday's hearing, defended the council's scrutiny.
"I'm more concerned that I wasn't critical enough," Wells said. "We still have a lot of work to do."