Capping a year of growing tensions, D.C. firefighters turned their backs on their chief Tuesday -- literally.

Roughly 100 firefighters stood up, turned around, then walked out on D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Chief Kenneth Ellerbe in response to his State of the Department address, in the most severe public statement the union has made about any chief in recent memory. The gesture was to highlight firefighters' growing frustrations with changes in the department, union members said after the meeting.

"We have zero confidence in his ability to lead the department," a union member, Lt. Robert Alvarado, later said.

Particularly sour issues are a proposal to switch from 24-hour shifts to more frequent, 12-hour shifts; a handful of mandated uniform changes over the past year; and a work environment that some firefighters see as hostile.

After the meeting, Ellerbe said he had expected some type of gesture from the union, adding that they were "entitled" to express themselves.

"I expected them to actually voice their concerns, but they handled themselves in a different way," he said. "Nonverbal communications sometimes is just as good as speaking."

When asked why members didn't ask questions as they were invited to after Ellerbe's speech, Alvarado said, "We've tried."

He said he has turned to the media this month over the latest uniform logo mandate because members are frustrated with trying to talk it out.

Examiner Archives
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    During his speech, Ellerbe told members "we will look like a professional organization" and reminded them Mayor Vincent Gray has asked all department heads to shave budgets this year. The department's approved budget for 2012 is $195.4 million, roughly $1.2 million less than 2011's.

    Ellerbe has said his proposed shift change will eventually save the department $36 million over time through a smaller force. The union has said the shift change is a ploy to squeeze out the 40 percent of firefighters who live more than 30 miles outside the District. The city and union are negotiating on the issue.