Fire at Webb in 2012. Courtesy Twitter user @thetbone41

Fire at Webb in 2012. Courtesy Twitter user @thetbone41

When a firetruck breaks down, experiences mechanical difficulty, or has to go out of service for some other reason, you’d hope that the fire department simply swaps it out with a spare one it holds in reserve.  For a February 4, 2013 oversight hearing, Fire Chief Ken Ellerbe provided responses to questions provided in advance by Tommy Wells’ staff on the oversight committee for Public Safety and the Judiciary.  In his responses, Ellerbe assured the Council that the agency has plenty of spare units on hand, a topic of recent discussion after several high-profile incidents have left citizens wondering.

Ahead of the hearing, Well’s committee staff sent questions to the DCFD, including asking for specific number of all fire trucks currently “in use” and owned by the Department (not leased).  According to information supplied by the Chief’s office, the fire department maintains a healthy “in use” reserve fleet, including 13 ladder trucks and 25 fire engines.  However, this information is frighteningly incorrect.

According to DCFD sources, the fire department’s reserve fleet is severely depleted and no where near what the Chief claims.  In fact, nearly two dozen of the alleged 38 firetrucks on standby are inoperable, missing, or were sold at auction last year.  We obtained related documents from someone who spoke with fire department union staff, who are outraged and are looking further into the numbers.

Here are some examples of firetrucks the union discovered the fire chief reported as being “in use” and ready to fight fires as of February 2013:

  • Unit S389: Stuck in the mud at the fire academy, inoperable and will not start (for at least 6 mos).  See photo below
  • Unit S391, S395, S396, S302:  Unable to locate vehicles, but all have been removed from the Department’s dispatching system, which contains all active units
  • Unit S390:Ladder truck will not start and was placed out of service due to ladder problems.  A sign on the truck advises it was placed out of service in October 2010.  See photo below.
  • Units S384, S386: At the Seagrave scrap yard in Wisconsin; parts were used to refurbish new ladder trucks 11 and 12; Units have not been in the fleet for over 4 years (see photo)
  • Units S114, S115, S118, S119, S121, S124, S127, S129: Sold at online auction last year (see photos)
  • Unit S109: Out of service, will not start; no hose bed (replaced by benches for community outreach)

And that’s just a few examples from a larger list uncovered by IAFF union members.  A telling sign that there’s more to this than the city’s admitting?  The ladder truck servicing the Brightwood community is out of service, and was not replaced by one of the alleged “reserve” units.  Since none were available, the ladder truck from Shaw was temporarily moved to work at the Brightwood station.

This has a local Trinidad interest:  if a fire breaks out in our neighborhood, the DCFD dispatches two or more fire companies, and the second company would normally include the Shaw ladder truck.  However, due to a lack of reserve units, the Shaw truck is currently being used in Brightwood.  Overall, this means there’s a chance for a delayed response to a catastophic event where even seconds count.

Sadly, the people who are able to fix this and provide funding for additional equipment, DC Council, are being mislead by the fire department, which has reassured the public over and over that it has enough equipment.  However, the numbers tell a different story: it’s a misleading shell game, putting taxpayers’ safety at risk just to save face.

Here are some photos relating to “in use” reserve fire trucks that actually aren’t available or are no longer owned by the city:

Since Fox 5 first brought the news yesterday, the fire chief has back tracked, blaming all of this on a miscommunication and threw a Deputy Fire Chief under the bus, blaming him for furnishing an “old fleet schedule.”  Considering that the list included trucks that haven’t been in the fleet for 4 years, we’re not sure we’re buying his claim that it was a misunderstanding.

Note that Ellerbe himself was copied on the information provided to council staffers, leading us to suspect Chief Ellerbe either knew that the information furnished was false, or he is severely uninformed of the status of his department’s preparedness.  Either way, it’s damning.

Here’s the message from DCFD’s analyst who sent the information to Council staff, with Ellerbe and even Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul Quander on the recipient list: