The Discipline Debacle in DC

It is almost beyond belief, even for someone who lectures regularly on the subject of “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up”. A fire chief, Kenneth Ellerbe, disciplining two chief officers who serve as hearing officers – administrative fact finders – because the fire chief feels they did not properly issue the correct “recommendation” to him in two disciplinary cases arising out of the same incident… Really?

Rather than rewrite the facts of the cases – Here are some links to the various stories – the Washington Times article does a great job of summarizing the facts.


While the facts are complicated and convoluted – one battalion chief, Richard Sterne, was demoted to captain because he “recommended” issuing reprimands to two firefighters instead of the 24 hour suspensions the chief sought, and another battalion chief, Kevin Sloan, was transferred from a line position to a desk job in supply because he recommended a finding of not guilty for a lieutenant.

Here is the bottom line: In DC the fire chief is the final decision maker on matters of discipline. If the fire chief does not like recommendations that his subordinate chiefs give him, he should IGNORE THEM. He is the fire chief and that is his prerogative to overrule their decisions by issuing what ever punishment he believes is warranted.

But to punish fact finders for disagreeing with him? What message does that send? Perhaps the chief “thinks” it sends a message that “my chiefs need to get tough”…. Unfortunately the message that is being sent is – If the chief thinks someone is guilty, best agree with him or else you will be next. That is just plan wrong. That is bullying, plain and simple. Why bother with the farce of even having a chief officer issue a disciplinary recommendation if the fire chief has already pre-determined how it should come out? And by the way… due process means an accused has the right to a neutral decisionmaker… how exactly does the DC Fire & EMS provide that given the present circumstances?

And perhaps the real question – has Chief Ellerbe finally imploded? Will this discipline debacle be the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back?

Dave Statter has some more info on this case.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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