Last Monday Detroit Mayor Dave Bing’s office called a five-day-old story by TV reporter Charlie LeDuff “blatantly false”. LeDuff reported Paramedic Jeff Gaglio was in trouble for giving a blanket to a cold, old man who just lost his home in a fire. A day after Bing’s statement, Executive Fire Commissioner Donald Austin gave us additional details. Austin said Gaglio was not brought up on charges for handing out the blanket as LeDuff told us, but instead for failing to properly document that the item was missing from the ambulance.
In our Tuesday post criticizing the handling of this whole episode, I wrote the responses from Mayor Bing and Commissioner Austin were too little and way too late. Possibly more important, is that neither statement addressed a crucial piece of evidence shown by LeDuff and posted to Facebook by Gaglio’s wife. It was the official charging document issued to Gaglio that proved Bing and Austin were just plain wrong.
Read on to learn why Dave believes Commissioner Austin should have asked reporter LeDuff and Paramedic Gaglio to move over so he could join them.
From the start on October 10, when LeDuff wore a blanket as a cape and did an in-the-bed interview with Gaglio, it was clear to everyone that this was a hell of a news story. Clear to everyone except those in charge.
For nine days the story dragged on through the local news, and around the world, going viral via social media and the web. This process was aided and abetted by the leadership of the Detroit Fire Department and the City of Detroit. You can thank both their inaction and their wrong actions. This is a story that should have been dealt with on Day 1. There should have never been a Day 9.
But it wasn’t until Day 9 (Friday), a day when hundreds of blankets descended on Motor City, that Commissioner Austin finally admitted reporter Charlie LeDuff was 100 percent right in the first place. Austin said Jeff Gaglio had been charged with giving away the blanket and it shouldn’t have happened.
“The member is not getting charged. Yes, the charge papers were served unbeknownst to me. They have been shredded,” says Austin.
He added, “I can’t control everyone every minute of the day. I hope our supervisors understand what our mission is about and demonstrate compassion.”
There are a lot of things Detroit desperately needs money for in order to provide vital services like fire protection, EMS and law enforcement. But this time it wasn’t the chronic shortage of funds that brought such scorn and so many blankets from around the world. It was something else. Something Detroit’s top officials can never seem to find when bad news surfaces. In situations like this it’s really more precious than money. I am talking about good judgment and common sense.
Commissioner Austin is absolutely correct that he can’t control his personnel “every minute of the day”. As much as a leader of a large organization tries, it can be hard to prevent idiotic moves by the people who work for you. Supervisors will make mistakes. Boneheaded actions like disciplining a paramedic who was trying to show compassion in the middle of the chaos that has become Detroit will occur. Almost every fire department has people who, because of ego, stupidity or both, will bring trouble to the organization. Stuff happens.
But let’s be clear, it wasn’t what Gaglio’s supervisor did that caused this story to go viral and further erode Detroit’s crumbled reputation. That task was handled at a higher level by the likes of EMS Chief Jerald James, Mayor Bing and Commissioner Austin. They followed the same knee-jerk reaction or inaction they always do whenever Charlie LeDuff comes knocking and starts asking questions. It’s SOP for Mayor Bing’s administration.
When are Detroit officials going to finally realize they are largely responsible for creating the legend of this caped crusader?
Detroit officials followed this usual plan to the letter when they failed to evaluate the seriousness of the issue from the start and refused to address it head on. And when they were finally forced to talk they moved into Phase 2 of the plan. That calls for attacking the reporter, using “facts” that just aren’t true and are easily refutable.
Just look at all of LeDuff’s stories we’ve been sharing with you in recent years. This same pattern is clear going back at least two fire commissioners before Donald Austin.
Despite plenty of experience, Detroit’s leadership can’t figure out even the basic concepts for dealing with bad news or LeDuff. In fact, this usual reaction of running from the story, hiding from and attacking LeDuff plays right into the reporter’s hands. It makes the story and the legend of Charlie LeDuff much larger than either has a right to be.
I don’t for a moment think either Mayor Bing or Commissioner Austin are evil or even stupid. Perhaps they are so overwhelmed trying to keep Detroit afloat they can’t really see the role image and reputation play in defining a fire department or a city. Even a city where nothing seems to go right. The whole reason I bother to write about this stuff is because if Bing and Austin can’t figure it out maybe others can. Learn from this. Don’t let it happen in your city or with your department.
In the story above Commissioner Austin shows he has the right idea. He’s just nine days too late.
In the end, Commissioner Austin showed on Friday he may actually have what it takes for this part of the job. The Commissioner admitted the department was wrong and was seen on TV helping deal with the influx of blankets delivered to Detroit.
Imagine how this story would have played if Donald Austin had taken this concept and used it on Day 1. Would this story have gone viral if Austin had admitted the mistake right away to Charlie LeDuff and had torn up the charging documents on TV?
Better yet, Commissioner Austin could have helped make this story go viral but in a positive way. Imagine the good will and attention generated if Commissioner Austin had gotten into Jeff Gaglio’s sick bed with reporter LeDuff and handed the paramedic a bottle of cold medicine and a letter of commendation for showing compassion to one of Detroit’s senior citizens in need.
If you get nothing else from what I wrote here, remember this much. Often the only really bad thing in bad news stories is in how they are handled by those in charge.
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Also on STATter911 …
- Detroit mayor says TV reporter’s EMS blanket story is ‘blatantly false’. Charlie LeDuff stands by story that medic is punished for helping elderly man. – October 15, 2012
- Burning out of control: Detroit leaders fail to respond to a major fire. Commissioner Austin’s explanation is too little, too late to extinguish EMS blanket story engulfing the Internet. – October 17, 2012
- UPDATE: Detroit Deputy Fire Commissioner Fred Wheeler gone. Mayor Dave Bing swings axe after confrontation with reporter Charlie LeDuff. Commisioner Austin answers the questions Wheeler wouldn’t. – May 31, 2012
- ‘When seconds count, we’re only minutes away’. TV reporter Charlie LeDuff gives a status update on the Detroit Fire Department. – January 22, 2013
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