Investigation on DC ambulance fires to look at possible sabotage - DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG

Investigation on DC ambulance fires to look at possible sabotage

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WASHINGTON -

There are allegations of sabotage from a top D.C. official after two ambulances caught fire. Police are now investigating.

Paul Quander, the deputy mayor for public safety, called for the probe to make sure nothing he called "untoward" happened. The fires occurred Tuesday within hours of one another. Cell phone video shows the ambulance parked outside an apartment complex on Benning Road engulfed in smoke and flames.

Despite well-documented equipment and mechanical problems, Quander made his no bones about his suspicions.

"Let me answer it this way. Since you've been in the District of Columbia, how many instances are you aware of where two fire engines or two fire apparatus have caught fire on the same day within a three-hour period? Any?" the deputy mayor said.


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The suggestion of sabotage rankled firefighters. The union claims the department is blaming them for its shoddy maintenance and neglect, when ambulances frequently overheat.

"Mechanical breakdowns are a daily occurrence in this department. They were highlighted yesterday because it involved fire," said Ed Smith, President of the DC Firefighters Association.

Ambulances frequently overheat and they have to lift the hood to cool the vehicle. A picture also shows a parking sign used as a makeshift heat shield inside the engine. After being made public, the department announced it was removing the temporary heat shields, which were installed because of air conditioning problems during the July heat wave.

D.C. Fire and EMS Chief Kenneth Ellerbe spoke exclusively on FOX 5 Morning News Wednesday. While he did not directly accuse firefighters of sabotage, he defended the police investigation.

"I think the deputy mayor's approach is appropriate," Ellerbe said. "That way we can dispel any myths and rumors and make the appropriate conclusion about what happened."

The probe widened the rift between the department and rank-and-file firefighters.

"I do take offense and it's demoralizing to the whole work force," said Smith. "And we've been demoralized for the last two and a half years and it's just another example of what the firefighters are going through serving this city."

Councilmember Tommy Wells, who heads the Committee on Public Safety, considers the deputy mayor's insinuations inflammatory.

"I think that's a very serious veiled allegation," said Wells, who has asked to meet with Quander. "I have no reason to believe it's anything other than a failure of our equipment."

Given the growing divide between the department and union, Wells is calling on Mayor Vincent Gray to step in and do something about it.

For months, FOX 5 has reported the equipment failures and maintenance problems within DC Fire and EMS. Just last week, an ambulance assigned to the President's motorcade ran out of gas. Apparently the gas gauge was broken and the crew failed to fill the tank as required.

"When it comes to basic things, I'm going to hold individuals accountable," Quander said about the incident.

The strained relationship between the union and fire department leaders has devolved publicly amid council hearings, reports by the inspector general and council committees. Council members have called on him to step down, but he continues to have the backing of Mayor Gray.

"We are in a critical period of change, and a lot of times, change is frightening to folks. If they don't know what the changes are entirely, then they are resistant, and I think that's part of what we're experiencing," Ellerbe said of the tensions.

The police investigation into the ambulance fires is just the latest volley in the ongoing feud. If anything criminal is found, Quander vowed to take appropriate action. It is that type of rhetoric and the allegations of sabotage that are troubling.

"That tells me we have a crisis of trust between the rank-and-file and leadership. That's why the mayor must get involved in this," Wells said.

The firefighter's union doesn't trust it will get a fair investigation. It is now calling on the National Transportation Safety Board or other federal regulators to investigate the safety of the entire Fire and EMS fleet.

"We're out here trying to respond to emergencies and serve the public, and if these vehicles are unsafe, everybody is unsafe," said Smith.

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