Since the posting on June 11 of the video from the day before showing Uniontown, Pennsylvania (Fayette County) Fire Chief Charles Coldren confronting self-decribed activist Chris Shellhammer we have received almost 800 comments on the blog and on Facebook. I have never seen so much agreement among our readers. With the exception of a very few people, everyone thought Chief Coldren’s actions were wrong.
For the most part, the small number of people who have defended Chief Coldren indicated they know him and pointed out that we don’t know what happened before that confrontation. Even Uniontown Mayor Ed Fike said Chief Coldren had to be provoked for him to react the way that he did.
Shellhammer and his family have indicated from the start that more video had been shot leading up to Coldren’s tirade. Well, here it is. It was posted yesterday to YouTube by Shellhammer. In the description Shellhammer writes ”Note the children walking through the ‘emergency’ scene at the 2:00 min mark.”
That I can see, the video is very boring. If there is provocation I am missing it.
“Nobody should judge me on one incident,” is the message TribLive.com reporter Liz Zemba got in a phone conversation with Uniontown, Pennsylvania (Fayette County) Fire Chief Chuck Coldren yesterday, three days after his tirade against a citizen with a camera was posted to YouTube. The citizen is self-described activist Chris Shellhammer who, along with his mother, has been involved in protests at the courthouse and police station and regularly videos police activity.
Uniontown Mayor Ed Fike, who says the incident will be investigated, reiterated what he told other reporters, “For him to come unglued like that, somebody had to provoke him.” But according to reporter Zemba, who has seen additional raw video shot by Shellhammer, there is no indiction of anything leading up to the confrontation.
“I’ve devoted 40-plus years of public service to the city of Uniontown,” Coldren said. “I’ve always been totally professional. People who don’t know me have no right to judge me.”
“They were at a bomb scare, where people are in harm’s way, and you’re trying to keep people out of harm’s way,” Fike said. “It’s not like Chuck is a mean, degrading, terrible person, because he isn’t.”
“There are two sides to every story,” Fike said. “We have to look at the video and talk to Chuck to get to the real cause of it to determine whatever the reprimand will be, if anything.”
Some thoughts on how Uniontown is dealing with this incident. When a man dressed in civilian clothes, screams “leave” to a citizen standing in an area that is not blocked off and the citizen asks who he is, if your first answer is “I’m the fire chief, do you want to f#$*ing argue with me?”, you should be throwing in the towel immediately. Stop trying to defend the indefensible, making excuses and looking for ways to justify the chief’s response and his apparent threat to do bodily harm to the citizen. All you are doing now is stretching this story into multiple days of news coverage and making sure that even more people see how stupid your fire chief looks and how lame your excuses are.
There should have been an apology from day one. With the apology should be an explanation from the mayor and fire chief that Uniontown and it’s officials recognize the rights of citizens to take pictures along with an announcement that guidelines are in place to prevent this from happening again.
If these leaders have any sense, something similar to that will ultimately occur anyway. It almost always does. Why wait and destroy your credibility and image further? Swallow your pride, get over yourself and deal with it like reponsible leaders.
In addition, if you are the person promising an investigation, when you make a statement that “somebody had to provoke him” when there is no clear evidence in the public record to back up that point, you are letting everyone know that getting to the bottom of what happened may not be your real goal.
There was a lot to learn in the original video showing the chief going nuclear and there is a lot to learn from how Uniontown is handling the fallout.
We introduced you to Chuck Coldren Tuesday night. He is the career fire chief of Uniontown, Pennsylvania (Fayette County) making a little more than $56,000 per year. The chief, wearing a t-shirt and shorts, let Uniontown resident Chris Shellhammer have it on Monday at an emergency incident. Shellhammer’s video is now making news. Local newspapers and at least two Pittsburgh TV stations did the story yesterday trying to get to the bottom of the fire chief’s tirade.
It turns out Chief Coldren missed his latest turn on camera because he is on vacation and reporters could not reach him at his home or office. This left Mayor Ed Fike to answer for Uniontown. Upon seeing the video, Mayor Fiske described Chief Coldren as a low-key guy who had to have been provoked to act that way. Shellhammer claims there was no provocation. The mayor told reporters there will now be an investigation and if an apology is warranted he is sure the chief will have no problem doing that.
The video has prompted lots of discussion with hundreds of comments posted on STATter911.com and related Facebook pages and many other forums. Only a couple of people have come to the chief’s defense so far.
Uniontown resident Chris Shellhammer likes to know what’s going on in his neighborhood. So when he saw police and fire vehicles near his home on Monday, he walked over to see what he could see. He also started capturing video with his cellphone.
In the video, Uniontown Fire Chief Charles Coldren approaches Shellhammer in plain clothes and ask him to move back, which Shellhammer does. Shellhammer suggests the area should be taped off if the public is not allowed. That’s when the encounter escalates.
“You’re not going to tell me how to do my (expletive) job. Now, if you want to keep running your lip I’ll have you (expletive) arrested. You can record me all you want. I don’t give a flying (expletive),” Coldren says in the video.
It’s important to note, Shellhammer described himself and his family members as “community activists,” and they’ve become known in the community as a result. Shellhammer said he’s skeptical of authority and often joins protests at the Fayette County courthouse. However, in the Internet video, Shellhammer’s responses don’t seem to warrant Coldren’s responses and, at one point, Coldren appears to challenge Shellhammer to a fight.
“You want to put that down and take it to another level?” Coldren said in the video. “Let’s go.”
Action News went to Coldren’s Uniontown home looking for answers but he didn’t answer the door. An employee at the fire station said he is on vacation until next week. Channel 4 was first to show Uniontown Mayor Ed Fike the Internet video, which has now been viewed more than 5,000 times.
“You only hear one side of it, not that that makes either side right,” Fike said.
As you watch this, I will be the first to admit, other than what is evident on the video, I have no clue what kind of scene this was or what the person with the camera did or didn’t do to warrant the expletives coming from the man who says on the video he is the “fire chief”. What I do know is that, much like Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Captain Greg Smart’s infamous on camera tirade, this is probably not the best way for professionals who deal with public to handle with this situation. Even if you are right, you undermine your own authority and reputation with actions like this caught on camera.
The description with the video from ccspagan simply asks, “Is this how public officials should treat taxpayers?”
Alvin Bethea’s testimony in front of the DC City Council on Thursday was overshadowed by the almost three hours of questioning of Chief Kenneth Ellerbe and Deputy Mayor Paul Quander. Other than one mention in an article, I don’t believe Bethea made news, despite the rather outspoken nature of his testimony and an interesting link to an EMS response from 18-years-ago that shows progress made by the department.
At the beginning of his appearance before the Committee on the Judiciary and Public safety, Alvin Bethea had nice things to say about Chief Kenneth Ellerbe and the department’s response to two EMS calls he was personally familiar with. One of those calls involved the stabbing death of Bethea’s son a little more than a year ago.
What is probably worth noting in the praise about that response is that Bethea’s son, Deoni Jones, aka JaParker, is described in news articles as a transgender woman. In 1995, a long and ugly chapter in the department’s history was opened after allegations surfaced over poor care and derogatory remarks made when the DC Fire and EMS Department responded to a car crash that took the life of Tyra Hunter, a transsexual. Hunter’s mother successfully sued the City.
But Alvin Bethea then switched gears in his testimony. That’s where the clip above posted to YouTube begins. Bethea talks about attacks on Chief Ellerbe as being “the work of the devil”. He testifies that firefighters are bringing the city “grief” and “intentionally breaking and destroying ambulances and fire trucks and medical equipment”. Bethea likens the firefighters to “home grown terrorists”.
To see the entire hearing and all of what Alvin Bethea had to say, click here (Bethea’s testimony begins at 3:04).
A day after DC Fire & EMS Department Chief Kenneth Ellerbe apologized for giving the wrong information to the DC City Council about it’s reserve fleet, Paul Wagner first reported this that Ellerbe and Deputy Mayor Paul Quander have done it again. According to Wagner’s report this morning on WTTG-TV/Fox 5 (above), at the same time the pair told the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety that there were four fully stocked and ready to go reserve ambulances at the apparatus maintenance shop, Ambulance 16 found something completely different. Check out Paul’s evening report in the video above and the story below:
There is new information in the ongoing troubles inside the D.C. Fire and EMS department. FOX 5 has obtained a document and a picture that shows the department’s reserve fleet of ambulances is not what leaders claim it to be.
D.C.’s fire chief told the D.C. Council Thursday his department is in an “acceptable state of readiness for major events” while the deputy mayor for public safety said the department is prepared if ambulances break down.
The deputy mayor repeatedly told the council the department has four ambulances held in reserve and said they had been in place since just after March 5 when an injured D.C. police officer waited 20 minutes for an ambulance.
But according to an internal document obtained by FOX 5, not one fully-stocked reserve was ready Thursday when a crew needed one.
Approximately three hours before Paul Quander sat down to testify before the city council, the crew of Ambulance 16 went to the fleet maintenance shop in Southwest D.C. where they were told to get into reserve Ambulance 627.
According to the internal document, the crew told a supervisor, “This unit was not fully stocked and one compartment appeared to be used as a trash can … there was oxygen however it was low and needed to be replaced. The unit had less than a half a tank of fuel and the cot had a pile of equipment thrown on top of it.”
The document says the crew got in the rig, but “It seemed to be in worse shape (than) the one we had just switched out of.”
As the crew waited for another reserve, Quander was repeatedly claiming the department had four ambulances ready to go.
“A minimum of four ambulances are kept stocked and available at FEMS fleet maintenance for ambulances that go out of service for more than 30 minutes due to mechanical problems,” he said. “Those units are fully available, they’re stocked.”
Later in the hearing at the Wilson Building, Quander said it again.
“We have placed four ambulances that are there ready to go,” said Quander. “All we have to do is turn the key and bring some equipment, the bag and the laptop.”
But the crew of Ambulance 16 did not get a working reserve until 3:30 p.m.
The third they were told to get into that day.
During Thursday’s hearing, the chief told the council the department has 111 ambulances. 39 are in service, 46 are out of service and 19 are in reserve.
The department is currently conducting an audit of the fleet after FOX 5 revealed the numbers the department was claiming were false.
The chief admitted Thursday he had been managing the department for about a year with numbers that did not add up. It is an admission Councilmember Tommy Wells seized upon, calling it an “incredibly serious issue.”
“Management is absolutely accountable for the problems of this agency, and it goes back to making sure they have the equipment they need to do their jobs,” said council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat and chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety that held Thursday’s hearing.
During several sharp exchanges, department leadership rebuffed characterizations that the issues were widespread, with Mr. Quander laying out plans to address what he referred to as the “isolated” incidents, and the chief adding that he believes the “department’s fleet remains in an acceptable state of readiness for potential major events in the city.”
“Rarely is it about one person. It is about a system and the lack of quality control,” Mr. Mendelson said, later appearing incredulous that the chief had such inaccurate information about the condition of his fleet.
D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe acknowledged on Thursday that he led his agency for about a year using faulty data about the state of its fleet, and he apologized for repeated ambulance shortages that left the ill, injured and dying waiting for help.
“We were operating with an outdated list,” said Ellerbe, who told lawmakers that current statistics show that nearly half of the District’s 111 ambulances are out of service. “It was inaccurate for approximately a year.”
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson was incredulous.
“I just don’t understand how the chief of the fire and EMS department would not know how many vehicles are available,” Mendelson said as lawmakers continued to absorb a scathing report from the D.C. inspector general that said the department’s fleet was unprepared for a catastrophic emergency.
The chair of D.C. City Council’s public safety committee grilled the fire chief for 2 1/2 hours on Friday during a contentious hearing on whether slow response times and maintenance failures are endangering the lives of sick and injured residents.
Deputy Mayor for public safety Paul A Quander Jr., who sat beside Ellerbe, said the chief needs to move forward with plans to revamp schedules and deployment to keep up with a changing city.
He said the fire service is no longer a “fire department that sometimes handles medical calls, but instead it is a mobile medical hospital agency that occasionally handles fires.”
Nearly half of the ambulances serving the District of Columbia are out of service, an apologetic D.C. Fire Chief Ken Ellerbe testified Thursday before members of the D.C. Council.
Ellerbe, who has faced multiple calls for his resignation in the midst of numerous issues facing the city’s fire and EMS response capabilities, said that the equipment problems his department faces are due to them “holding on to things” for too long.
The chief told members of the D.C. Council that just 58 of the District’s 111 ambulances are currently in service.
For Ellerbe, Thursday’s hearing was an uncomfortable grilling. But for Durand Ford, Jr., it was like ripping the scab off a wound.
His father, Durand Ford, Sr., died from a heart attack on New Year’s Day while waiting for an ambulance. Ford’s death was one of three incidents under the microscope during Thursday’s testimony on slow response times.
At issue is whether the three problems in the last three months are because of a systemic breakdown or if, as Chief Ellerbe and Deputy Mayor Paul Quander contend, unfortunate outliers.
“The events of New Year’s Day are atypical, hopefully never happen again,” Quander says.
More than 100 firefighters called out sick on New Year’s Eve. But the subsequent two incidents involving an MPD motorcycle officer and a stroke patient being transported in the cab of a fire truck are being blamed on an aging fleet and a lack of paramedics.
“Sometimes it takes an incident to realize there are these issues,” Ellerbe says.
Ford, however, calls these problems just an opportunity to punt the blame.
The department came under even more intense scrutiny on March 5 after a Metropolitan Police Department officer had to wait nearly 20 minute for a mutual aide Prince George’s County ambulance to tend to him on after he was injured in a hit-and-run in Southeast.
A recently-released city report indicated that three D.C. ambulances were improperly out of service that night, forcing the need for a Maryland-based unit to respond. The officer finally made it to an area hospital nearly an hour after he was hit.
Seven city employees were disciplined for the inadequate response.
Ellerbe also said that the department had been operating under an incorrect inventory list for about a year.
In response, though, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson told Ellerbe that the issues were a “management problem” and that he needs to find a staff that can get their jobs done more effectively.
In a statement released Thursday, Ed Smith, the president of the D.C. Fire Union Local 36, said that the D.C. Fire & EMS Department is living on “borrowed time.”
“Nothing proves Chief Ellerbe’s negligence more than the state of the fleet of reserve ambulances and fire trucks that is supposed to be at the ready at all times,” Smith said. “The fleet is virtually non-existent and has been a key factor in recent well-publicized EMS failures.”
Ellerbe overwhelmingly received a vote of no confidence from the fire union on Monday. Immediately after the 300-37 vote, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul Quander threw their support behind Ellerbe.
“Despite the ‘no confidence’ vote tallied by the local firefighters union, I am very optimistic about the department’s future and encouraged by the service we provide to District residents and visitors,” Ellerbe said in a statement after the vote.
His department also faced scrutiny over claims of sexual harassment in February. Numerous cadets told ABC7′s Jay Korff that two training academy instructors repeatedly harassed them.
Only 58 of the District’s 111 ambulances are currently in service, D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe testified before a city council committee Thursday.
Ellerbe added that the District only has 245 paramedics, well short of its target of 300. Even that number is less impressive than it appears since Ellerbe disclosed that not all paramedics do field work or receive calls.
The failure to provide an ambulance to a police officer injured in a hit-and-run and two other incidents — including the death of a man who died while waiting for an ambulance — have raised questions about whether the department has enough resources to handle the emergency call volume in the fast-growing city.
Those three incidents, all within 90 days of each other, prompted the hearing, said D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells.
Ellerbe apologized during Thursday’s testimony. “I’d like to offer my sincere apology to the families,” he said. “I’m deeply troubled … I accept responsibility.”
The chief also apologized for misinformation on the department’s inventory of vehicles, saying that the department had faulty inventory records for a year.
An internal investigation had blamed individual employees for the slow ambulance response — but the District’s inspector general has also found a lack of adequate reserve vehicles, both ambulances and fire trucks. At any given time, only 39 ambulances are active in the District.
Ellerbe told the Council committee Thursday that although “the audit is still ongoing,” he promised to overhaul the way their fleet is managed by bringing in a “fleet consultant.”
Due to current shortages, Advance Life Support ambulances are routinely downgraded due to a lack of paramedics on duty, Ellerbe said, adding “The problem is not fixed.” A final assessment of the inventory of D.C. Fire/EMS is still 30 days from completion.
Ellerbe’s testimony comes three days after the city firefighters’ union overwhelmingly approved a resolution expressing no confidence in his leadership. When asked following his testimony whether he could guarantee no more ambulance delays in the District. Ellerbe told News4′s Mark Segraves that he could not.
D.C. Deputy Mayor Paul Quander testified Thursday that Ellerbe has “worked tirelessly.” However, Wells did not seem convinced by the testimoney, telling reporters following the hearing that he was “not satisfied” with Ellerbe’s responses, “deeply concerned with the dwindling number of paramedics,” and convinced there is a “systemic” problem with D.C. Fire and EMS management.
There has been a good deal of build up to today’s DC City Council hearing on the state of EMS in the Nation’s Capital. It is scheduled to start at 11:30 AM EDT and you can watch it here. There are a lot of expectations that the hearing could bring some clarity to the issues after the dozens of stories over the past few weeks. My experience tells me maybe or maybe not.
Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety Chairman Tommy Wells has made it known he has been dissatisfied with the answers so far. Whether all of this finally makes sense will depend on how to-the-point the questions are from Wells and how willing Chief Kenneth Ellerbe and the administration of Mayor Vince Gray are to opening up on the issues of the last two years.
All you have to do is recall one of the most bizarre City Council hearings involving the DC Fire & EMS Department over the last 30 years to understand how unclear everything can still be after one of these public events. That was the one that had Chief Dennis Rubin on the hot seat over the Fenty administration’s give-away of a fire engine and ambulance to the town of Sosua in the Dominican Republic (see videos above). It took an IG report to finally get some real answers in that case (click here to read the report & see related articles). But the topic of today’s hearing is much more important than those shenanigans.
Suderman makes the case that other administration officials have been asked to leave based on a lot less than the record amassed by Chief Ellerbe. Suderman reviews that record in the column.
Last week, the latest department head to get the boot was Harold Pettigrew, who senior Gray administration officials say was fired for not moving fast enough to reform the Department of Small and Local Business Development.
But Gray’s tolerance for controversy or alleged ineptitude isn’t always so slight; he’ll stick with some department heads no matter how much heat they generate. Consider Fire Chief Ken Ellerbe, whose two-year tenure has been marked by steady controversies and who is likely to be the subject of intense questioning by the D.C. Council on Thursday.
Early on, Ellerbe pledged to be a “transformational” leader who would bring together a fractured fire department, improve relations with the firefighters union, and be a better community partner. But up until now, Ellerbe has made headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Suderman’s article also looks at a transistion document sent to Chief Ellerbe by Chief Rubin.
Other pre-hearing stories include the video at the top of this post by Paul Wagner. He interviews Marcus Rosenbaum who is scheduled to testify today. Also scheduled to testify is Durand Ford Jr. who was interviewed by April Burbank of the Washington Examiner. Both men had relatives who were the patients in a pair of high profile EMS cases.
Apologies for the late post, I have been traveling. Here’s coverage of Monday’s vote of no confidence in the leadership of embattled DC Fire & EMS Department Chief Kenneth Ellerbe. The vote was 300 to 37. The last vote of no confidence by IAFF Local 36 was in 2001 against Chief Ronnie Few. Chief Few resigned in 2002 after news reports revealed discrepancies in the resumes of Few and other top officials he recruited for the department.
Union President Edward C. Smith said Ellerbe’s management “places our members and the public needlessly in harm’s way.”
Ellerbe declined to be interviewed, but he issued a statement saying he is “very optimistic about the department’s future and encouraged by the service we provide to District residents and visitors.” The chief, a native of the District who came here from Sarasota, Fla., in 2011, added, “I am deeply committed to resolving the issues before us.” He previously said the department has reached the “tipping point” in regard to slow response times.
Councilman Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), the public safety committee chairman, said he will demand on Thursday that Ellerbe explain how his staff submitted information for a Feb. 20 oversight hearing showing the department had an adequate reserve fleet when officials there had been given the inspector general’s report one day earlier.
“Did they purposely provide false information to the council, or were they operating under false information?” said Wells, who is considering running for mayor.
“Fire Chief Ellerbe now has a two-year record that has resulted in a failed approach to leadership that has needlessly endangered the public through excessive delays in response due to staffing and fleet mismanagement, and dangerous situations for the firefighters who are sworn to protect the citizens and visitors of our city,” union officials said in a statement issued Monday after the vote.
“It’s a sad day when we have to use that as a recourse to let the public know they’re in harm’s way,” union President Edward Smith said.
Paul A. Quander Jr., the city’s deputy mayor for public safety and justice, also issued a statement Monday afternoon saying the chief has his support in ongoing efforts to “modernize and move the agency forward.”
Hundreds of D.C. firefighters packed a Northeast D.C. union hall Monday morning where they voted “no confidence” in Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe.
It was a vote that went overwhelmingly against the chief.
Union leaders say Ellerbe is putting public safety at risk with a depleted staff of paramedics and a shabby fleet of vehicles while the chief’s defenders say it’s all about an unpopular shift change.
337 firefighters cast secret ballots Monday. Only 37 voted they still had confidence in Chief Ellerbe.
It is a vote that came 12 years after the last “no confidence” vote and three days after an inspector general’s report questioned whether the department could respond to a mass casualty incident.
Things got a bit testy outside the union hall on Bladensburg Road, NE, where firefighters casting ballots came face-to-face with Ellerbe supporters.
The 300 who voted “no confidence” in the chief discussed the issue in the union hall before folding their votes and slipping them into the ballot box as they left the building.
Ellerbe’s trouble with the union and its membership began soon after he proposed doing away with the platoon system where firefighters work 24 hours on and 72 hours off.
Instead the chief wants to go to 12-hour shifts to better handle a high volume of medical calls.
But the union says it’s more than that.
“If we don’t have the right staffing and the right tools and the right training, we can’t be the best department in the country,” said Union President Ed Smith.
The firefighters’ vote comes on the heels of embarrassing stories in which an injured D.C. police officer waited 20 minutes for an ambulance while a stroke victim was transported to the hospital in a fire engine.
The union says attrition has left well over a hundred jobs unfilled while the inspector general found the department’s fleet of vehicles and its repairs a dysfunctional mess.
But Chief Ellerbe’s supporters say the trouble comes from firefighters resistant to change.
“Chief Ellerbe sees for the future we need to be working shorter shifts, more intervals and that doesn’t comply with a lot of people who live far away from here,” said firefighter Garry Wiggins.
Retired firefighter Nathan Queen added, “I think the chief is a good manager. He was called here to manage and that’s what he is doing. Are there those that don’t want to change? Yes, and that’s why they are having this vote of no confidence against the chief because their biggest issue, Local 36’s biggest issue is the shift change.”
In a statement, Chief Ellerbe responded to the vote by saying:
“I am very optimistic about the department’s future and encouraged by the service we provide to District residents and visitors. I remain deeply committed to resolving the issues before us. I look forward to strengthening our capabilities and putting our resources to better use in order to uphold the confidence of those we serve every day.”
Union President Ed Smith says he plans to lay it all out on the table this Thursday when Councilmember Tommy Wells holds a special hearing on D.C. Fire and EMS and the condition of the fire department’s fleet of vehicles.
By the way, the no confidence vote will not force any action. Instead, it’s just a way for the firefighters to show their confidence, or in this case, their lack of confidence in their chief.
“Chief Ellerbe is ethically bankrupt; and his poor managerial practices places our members and the public needlessly in harm’s way,” according to a statement released by Ed Smith, president D.C. Fire Fighters Association Local 36. The statement goes on to say that Chief Ellerbe “has needlessly endangered the public through excessive delays in response due to staffing and fleet mismanagement, and dangerous situations for the fire fighters who are sworn to protect the citizens and visitors of our city.”
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray has backed Ellerbe with support despite the scrutiny the department has faced over the last few months.
A report by the D.C. Inspector General’s Office earlier this month said the department’s ambulance fleet had dangerous gaps in coverage and a “dangerously high and unaddressed attrition rate of paramedics that threatens the lives of D.C. residents everyday who are in medical distress.”
District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray is standing behind fire chief Kenneth Ellerbe following a no-confidence vote by the city firefighters’ union.
Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul Quander said in a statement Monday that he continues to support Ellerbe’s efforts to modernize the department. He’s calling on firefighters to work with the chief to accomplish that goal.
Councilman Tommy Wells told ABC7 this latest problem is undermining his confidence in the department’s ability to respond to any crisis that requires additional resources.
“We just had a shooting of 13 people. If that had been 13 casualties, 13 folks that were life threatening, I’m not confident that we would have had the ability to respond,” Wells said.
Members of the Progressive Black Firefighters Organization, who held signs supporting the chief after the vote, say the main reason the union’s against Ellerbe is his plan to change scheduling.
On Feb. 19, Ellerbe received an initial management alert report from the Office of the Inspector General saying that “many vehicles designated as reserve vehicles were out-of-service and could not be used if needed as frontline replacement vehicles in neighborhood fire stations, or for large-scale emergencies or mass casualty events.”
A day later, Ellerbe testified before the Council’s public safety committee and made no mention that the information about the reserve fleet he submitted may have been inaccurate.
On March 13, Fox 5′s Paul Wagner reported on allegations made by the fire fighters union that the department was improperly counting fire trucks that had been sold or been out of service for years as part of the department’s reserve fleet. Right after the story aired, Ellerbe put out a statement saying the union was right and thanking it for “bringing this inaccurate information to our attention.”
Council member Tommy Wells, whose committee received the bad information, told Suderman he is going to give Chief Ellerbe a chance to explain the timeline but said it “does not look good”. No response from the chief on this issue.
But the inspector general’s report, which highlights some of the same deficiencies in the reserve fleet, was delivered to the fire chief the day before the hearing. It was released to the public on Friday.
“It certainly undermines my confidence in the management of the fire department,” said Councilmember Tommy Wells, who chairs the council’s public safety committee and presided over the hearing. “If they used the information that they provided me that said the reserve trucks are available when they’re not even in the District of Columbia and we don’t even own them anymore, then that tells me there’s a massive breakdown of administrative competence.”
Ellerbe said in a statement that he was already implementing the report’s recommendations and that the department was in the process of purchasing new vehicles, including ladder trucks and ambulances.
A new report by the D.C. inspector general is painting a dim picture of the readiness of the D.C. fire department and questions whether it can answer the call in a mass casualty incident.
The report found major deficiencies in the reserve fleet of trucks, pumpers and transports, and describes a dysfunctional operation.
This report, which was given to Chief Kenneth Ellerbe on February 19, the day before he appeared in front the D.C. City Council, says the department had not come close to meeting its own emergency plans and many of the vehicles designated as reserves were listed as out of service.
The report slams the condition of the fleet and questions the quality of the repairs it receives.
The investigation into the fleet and its maintenance began in January of last year when an inspector took a look inside a warehouse on Gallatin Street in Northwest D.C.
Inside, according to the report, were supposed to be ten reserve engines, eight reserve ladder trucks and two reserve rescue squads.
Instead, the report says the investigator found two engines that would not start, a ladder truck that would not start, and one being worked on in the driveway.
As for the rescue squads — there were three – but one that wouldn’t start.
The report also says the department’s emergency plan calls for 12 battalion reserve engines. But over the course of the seven-month investigation, the most ever listed was five.
The ambulances were another matter. Of the 31 listed in reserve, at times there were none, at other times there were just two, and the most the investigator found were 14.
On Thursday when FOX 5 asked the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety about the ladder trucks in reserve and the readiness of the fleet, this is what he had to say.
“I received a report recently that we have a reserve fleet,” said Paul Quander. “And I don’t mind going out with you. And if we need to count one by one, we count one by one. I think that’s the best way to put this matter to issue. If it’s there, it’s there. If it’s not, it’s not. Let’s go and see. Let’s go and count.”
It’s unclear if Quander had seen this report at the time of our interview. The inspector general says it was emailed on March 21.
The report goes on to say, “The limited documentation available and the overwhelming sentiment expressed to the OIG team by employees at all levels indicate that such deficiencies are real and negatively impact the day to day availability of both frontline vehicles at many fire stations and the vehicles in reserve status designated to replace them.”
“There is no planning,” said Union President Ed Smith. “It’s all fly by the seat of your pants and the citizens are suffering and my members are put at risk every day when they get out there on the rigs.”
A week ago Wednesday, FOX 5 first reported the union’s claim the reserve numbers given to the D.C. City Council in February were false and that apparatus claimed as in the reserve fleet had actually been sold or placed out of service.
Later that night, Chief Ellerbe issued a press release thanking the union for bringing the issue to light.
“It is poor management at the top and it alludes to that in this report,” said Smith.
One of the more eye opening facts in the report points out that Truck 3, the tower truck that would be first due to the White House, was repaired 138 times from January of 2009 to May of 2012. It is a number the inspector general decided to highlight.
Chief Ellerbe answered the report with a press release saying the department was already moving ahead with the recommendations of the inspector general and would report back in 60 days.
Seven people, including a fire captain, two firefighters and four medics, have been singled out for discipline after an injured D.C. police officer waited more than 20 minutes for an ambulance.
A report released Thursday says the captain failed to properly monitor the situation on March 5th when the officer was hit by a car. The other six were in ambulances that were improperly out of service.
As FOX 5 first reported Tuesday night, the investigation singled out three ambulance crews for not monitoring their radios after going out of service the evening of March 5.
Medic 27 was east of the Anacostia River and the closest when Officer Sean Hickman was seriously injured in a hit-and-run.
But the first responder taking the bulk of the blame is the captain working that day as the emergency liaison officer.
According to the report prepared by the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety, the fire captain was working inside the Office of Unified Communications and should have known an officer was down and dispatchers were looking for help.
But the captain, even though he has access to the same data, status information and data screens, was unaware the dispatchers asked for an ambulance to come from Prince George’s County.
“The ELO (Emergency Liaison officer) could have said to the units who had requested relief, ‘No, we are low on available units. You need to stay in service so we can make sure that we are covered,’” said Paul Quander, the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety. “He didn’t do that. Nor did the ELO monitor the situation and return those units to service, which he has the ability to do.”
Quander says the emergency liaison officer is a gatekeeper who keeps his eyes open for problems and makes adjustments if needed.
“I think that it was a major failure that evening,” he said.
But Union President Ed Smith disagrees and says the problem lies within the system.
“The ELO is specifically monitoring two medical channels and routes units to the right hospital,” said Smith. “They are not directly involved with dispatch.”
Smith says to single out this captain is inappropriate when the problem appears to be more with computer system design.
“We need to look at system-wide problems and fix it,” said Smith. “And if it needs more resources, then we get more resources or we make adjustments to the software.”
As FOX 5 reported Tuesday night, Medic 27 and Medic 19 were allowed to temporarily go out of service, but told to monitor the radio.
The crew of Ambulance 15 says it was parked at a firehouse on New Jersey Avenue in Northwest D.C. and unaware they had mistakenly marked themselves out of service when dispatchers were looking for help.
However, the report says Ambulance 15 was actually parked in quarters at Engine 15 in Anacostia at the time of the call.
“I think it is up to every employee to follow the protocols and rules,” said Quander. “And that’s why we have it and so the rules are if you are going out of service, you go out of service on a condition, to monitor the radio in case we need you to respond.”
Quander says all seven face punishment that could possibly end in termination.
The report recommends five remedies, which include keeping four ambulances stocked and ready to go in case an ambulance breaks down.
It was just a couple of weeks ago Quander said at a news conference the fire department should have two ambulances in reserve ready to go.
The D.C. inspector general has beugn an investigation into the D.C. fire department’s staffing levels to see if it can support around the clock emergency response.
The probe was launched in late January after a hundred firefighters called in sick on New Year’s Eve.
The investigation, by FOX 5’s count, is at least the fourth conducted inside the fire department in the last year.
In a letter sent to Chief Kenneth Ellerbe, the inspector general made several requests to include the list of all ambulances and other apparatus that were taken out of service on December 31, 2012 due to the reported staffing shortage.
The letter also asks for the names of all employees responsible for staffing.
On New Year’s Eve, the EMS system was stretched to capacity with one man losing his life after waiting for an ambulance that finally came from Prince George’s County.
FOX 5 has also obtained a document showing the fire department is looking for 20 of its ambulances.
In an email, sent by Deputy Chief John Donnelly to as many as seven other officials in the department, asks for help in locating the rigs.
Donnelly is conducting an audit of the department’s entire fleet after FOX 5 reported last Wednesday the number of trucks and pumpers given to the city council were false, and that as many as six pumpers and two ladder trucks claimed as reserves in the city are no longer in the fleet and have actually been sold. Still, others were unaccounted for.
And there is more. The inspector general has already completed an investigation into the fire department’s fleet, which according to sources is now being reviewed by Chief Ellerbe.
That probe began after an investigator was shown all of the stored fire equipment parked in and behind a building on Gallatin Street in Northwest D.C.
At his bi-weekly news conference Wednesday, the mayor declined to directly address the issues.
“I think you know that I have asked the deputy mayor, who happens to be ill today, that’s why he is not here, I’ve asked him to conduct a review of a number of issues in FMES,” said D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray. “The report will be out this week. It probably would have been out [Wednesday] if he hadn’t taken ill, but it will be out before the end of the week and I think I would rather wait until we get the report.”
On the staffing issue, FOX 5 has also obtained a letter marked confidential from former Chief Dennis Rubin to Chief Ellerbe as he was about to take over the department.
Rubin complains about staffing in the letter saying 603 people were hired during his administration, but they lost 336 people.
In the letter, Rubin wrote: “Unfortunately, my administration always needed to fill vacant seats on ambulances and fire trucks using overtime, and I found myself under incredible pressure to reduce overtime spending from all directions.”
In a statement, Chief Ellerbe said, “We welcome a review by the Office of the Inspector General of this unprecedented event where more than a hundred firefighters called in sick this past New Year’s Eve. We will cooperate fully with this investigation and look forward to its outcome.”
As for the ambulances the deputy chief was looking for? Just after 6 p.m. Wednesday, a spokesman for the mayor said all of the ambulances had been accounted for.
Two weeks ago, a D.C. motorcycle officer waited nearly 20 minutes for an ambulance after he was struck in a hit-and-run. Officials have since focused on why and how one of their own was left helpless.
The leaked report of Deputy Mayor Paul Quander’s investigation into what happened found there were three ambulances at fire stations in the vicinity of the accident.
ABC7 spoke with D.C. EMS Union officials who say the crews in question never heard a call.
“If they were available why weren’t they dispatched?” ambulance union president Kenneth Lyons asks. “I think that’s the question you have to ask … why weren’t these two units dispatched?”
Lyons tells ABC7 that the crews of two of the ambulances in question that he represents were monitoring the dispatch channel two weeks ago when the police officer was struck in a hit and run on his motorcycle and lay on the ground 20 minutes until an ambulance from Maryland came to get him. The two units were in a delay status, but could have been called.
“Units don’t self dispatch just because you hear a call, especially at a busy time of day,” Lyons says. “We’re not allowed to do that.”
Fire union president Ed Smith blamed a computer glitch for the fact the third ambulance crew he represents was not listed among available units.
“They realized there was a problem, went to jump in an ambulance and go on a run, and it wouldn’t start,” Smith says. “So now w’ere back to mechanical issues again.”
When reporters tried to ask the Mayor Vincent Gray about the report today, he said Quander was sick today and until Quander officially releases it, he’ll not comment.
The fire union blames Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe for poor equipment and staffing and are holding a no confidence vote Monday.
Asked about Ellerbe, Gray says, “I’m delighted to work with him.”
When the call was dispatched on March 5, D.C. said they had no available EMS units to send. An ambulance from Prince George’s County arrived 20 minutes later. Nearly an hour passed between the time the officer was struck and his arrival time at MedStar Washington Hospital.
“There are at least three units that I am focusing on that were listed as out of service inappropriately,” D.C. Deputy Mayor Paul Quander said during a press conference earlier this month.
Sources say that of the 39 ambulances scheduled as on duty that night, nine were listed as out of service. Of those nine, six were valid mechanical issues, but three were improperly taken out of service.
One crew didn’t log back into the system properly and were off the dispatcher’s radar. But the other two were considered to be in “delayed relief mode” and had been told to “monitor the radio” should an important call be dispatched.
Regardless of what led to the breakdown, D.C. residents say the lack of response is still concerning.
Reading the latest news accounts, it appears today’s regularly scheduled press conference should include some questioning of Mayor Vince Gray about the DC Fire & EMS Department. On Monday, with no comments coming from Chief Ellerbe or Deputy Mayor Paul Quander, a spokesman for Mayor Gray said the previous administration “neglected” the fire department leaving the city “unprepared”. It is expected, according to news accounts, that there will be a release of findings at today’s event of why no ambulance was available to take a seriously injured DC police officer to the hospital two weeks ago. Details of that investigation are already out.
FOX 5 has obtained the initial findings of an investigation into the March 5th ambulance response for an injured D.C. police officer.
Sean Hickman waited at least 20 minutes for an ambulance that eventually came from Prince George’s County. The Sixth District officer was on a scooter when police say he was intentionally run over by a man in car.
Sources familiar with the investigation say two ambulances should have been able to respond, but did not for reasons still unclear, and a third may have gone out of service by mistake.
The findings are expected to be made public Wednesday morning at the mayor’s bi-weekly news conference.
Sources familiar with the investigation say when the initial call for service went out at 6:36 p.m. that night, one ambulance was in quarters east of the river and near the scene of the accident, but did not respond even though the crew was told to monitor the radio.
Sources say Medic 27 went out of service for equipment trouble and parked at a fire house on Minnesota Avenue in Northeast D.C. when the call for the hit-and-run came in.
The crew went out of service at 6:27 p.m. after reporting problems with two batteries in a piece of equipment on the rig.
At 6:36 p.m., an engine with a paramedic was dispatched to the hit-and-run at 46th and A Streets in Southeast while communications searched for an ambulance.
Sources say a second crew, Medic 19, was at Howard University Hospital and asked for a delayed response back to quarters on Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, and went out of service at 6:34 p.m. after being also told to monitor the radio.
The call for the hit-and-run came in two minutes later.
A third crew, Ambulance 15, went out of service for 53 minutes from 6:26 p.m. to 7:19 p.m.
According to the crews’ own account, it was a mistake. They entered the wrong information into the rig’s computer and put themselves out of service.
20 minutes after the initial call for help went out, Ambulance 15 was still parked at a fire station on New Jersey Avenue, NW.
“It was a computer error,” says Union President Ed Smith. “They lost them in the system. Once the employees realized there was a problem, they self-reported the problem and then they were dispatched on another run.”
Smith says the firefighters realized their mistake when they heard a call for service over the radio that should have been given to them.
“They heard a run coming out that they thought they would be responsible to take and that’s when they realized there was a problem and self-reported to dispatch,” said Smith.
Sources familiar with the report say 39 ambulances were on duty that night, with nine out of service at the time of the call for the injured officer.
The investigation has discovered six of those transports were legitimately out of service with mechanical problems.
On March 5th a D.C. Police Officer—a victim of a hit-and-run—laid in the street for nearly 20 minutes with a broken leg before he was finally taken to the hospital by an ambulance from Prince George’s County.
In a report set to be released later Tuesday, sources familiar with the investigation tell ABC7 they found that 39 ambulances scheduled on duty that night, nine of those were listed as “out of service.”
Of those nine ambulances, six had valid mechanical issues, but three were improperly taken out of service.
One crew did not log back into the system properly and were off the dispatcher’s radar. But, the other two were considered in “delayed relief mode,” and had been told to “monitor the radio,” and should an important call come, they were told to respond.
ABC7 spoke with D.C. EMS union officials, who say, the two crews in question never heard a call for a dispatch.
Regardless of what led to the confusion, district residents told ABC7 that something needs to change.
“The previous administration left the city unprepared. … It takes time to turn around a department that was neglected for so long,” said Ribeiro, who noted the agency has ordered or received 45 ambulances since Gray became mayor.
Here’s a little more from Blinder’s article:
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said Monday that the DC Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department suffered an “embarrassment” by being forced to acknowledge it misled city lawmakers last month about the state of its fleet. “It’s always a concern of mine that the council receive accurate information,” Mendelson said. “It’s an embarrassment to the department that the information they provided turned out to be incorrect.”
Anyone who has heard my presentations knows my philosophy on ambush interviews of public officials by reporters. Because often they provide more theatrics than substance I tried to only use them when an official continuously refused to answer questions on important public issues. Apparently my friend Paul Wagner feels the same way. He has been trying since last week to get some answers from Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe and Deputy Mayor Paul Quander about the state of the fleet of fire trucks protecting our Nation’s Capital. When neither man would respond to Paul Wagner’s requests for interviews he went in search of Paul Quander and found him.
The D.C. Fire Department admitted on Friday its ladder trucks had not been put through stress tests last year because there were no reserve trucks to take their place. An admission that came after FOX 5 aired a story with a claim by the firefighters union the annual testing hadn’t been done since 2009, risking the safety of firefighters as well as citizens.
The accepted protocol within most, if not all fire departments is that ladder trucks be stress tested annually because of the danger of collapse. It’s an industry standard.
On Friday the D.C. Fire Department admitted it had not tested the trucks last year and left the question of testing in 2011 and 2010 unanswered.
On Monday FOX 5 went to see the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety in hopes of getting some answers.
Paul Quander has so far ignored every single request for comment since the middle of last week.
At first we were told Quander was unavailable when he suddenly left the office and we tried to get some answers. The video reveals our exchange.
“Hey Mr. Quander can I talk to you about a couple of issues?
“(Quander) not right now I am going down to…(Wagner) “There are some serious issues about safety right now and you are the head of public safety in the city”.
“(Quander) as I said I can’t talk to you right now, I have a meeting I need to go to and you didn’t schedule anything”.
“(Wagner) But you ignore me sir, I email, I call, I’m looking for answers and you are not giving us answers, the fire department admitted Friday night Mr. Quander it didn’t have any reserve trucks last year and they are not testing these ladder trucks isn’t that a public safety issue? Isn’t that a public safety issue sir? You are the head of public safety, firefighters are possibly in danger who are climbing theseladders that haven’t beentested, how come you are ignoring me?
In the same press release from Friday the fire department said it had tested one truck on Monday March 11th.
“Well Paul it’s pretty disgusting because we had a firefighter fatality in 1999 on Cherry Road”, said Union President Ed Smith, “One of the recommendations in that report was to keep the reserve fleet ready and there was a truck out of service that night and there was a delay on the second truck responding, we had the same delay when four firefighters were hurt on 48th Place, so apparently we don’t ever learn our lesson and the city is putting everybody’s safety at risk”.
The after action report on the Cherry Road fire lists current Chief Kenneth Ellerbe as taking part in the report which recommends “the department maintain an adequate reserve fleet”.
Last year in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania an aerial ladder collapsed while fighting a blaze at an auto repair shop, seriously injuring one firefighter.
Later this week, perhaps by Wednesday, the city will announce the outcome of an investigation into why there were no ambulances to take an injured D.C. Police officer to the hospital in a hit and run crash March 5th.
One other note, City Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said today he still has confidence in Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe but he needs to put the EMS transport problems and fleet maintenance issues behind him.
Mendelson says it’s unacceptable for a stroke victim to be taken to the hospital in a fire engine and if it’s best practice to stress test ladder trucks? Get it done.
Even with, or possibly because, of all the bad press and self inflicted wounds of the last few weeks, the Editorial Board of The Washington Post gave its own vote of confidence to Chief Kenneth Ellerbe. In an editorial posted online last night and in today’s print edition, the Post supports Chief Ellerbe’s idea of EMS redeployment and the proposed move away from 24-hour shifts for firefighters. The editorial gives the indication those are the solutions to what ails the DC Fire & EMS Department. The editorial does not cover any of the recent issues about the disrepair of the department’s fleet of ambulances and fire trucks and the questions surrounding Chief Ellerbe’s handling of that issue.
Here are the opening and closing paragraphs of the editorial:
Demand for ambulance service drops off at 1 a.m. and doesn’t pick up again until about 7 a.m. D.C. fire and emergency medical officials argue it makes sense to move some crews and equipment that are sitting idle to times when they are needed. The fact that such a common-sense change has yet to happen is testament to the dysfunctional politics that have brought the department to what Kenneth B. Ellerbe, chief of Fire and Emergency Medical Services, called a “tipping point.”
Mr. Ellerbe makes a strong case for breaking with tradition in how the department schedules and deploys its staff. The mission of the department has changed as the result of advances in building safety and fire prevention; more than 80 percent of calls are for medical emergencies, not fires. There is no understating the importance of firefighters or the considerable risks they take, and they have raised issues that bear scrutiny. But decisions about the direction of the department should be made by those in charge, based on what best serves public needs.
A little after noon today DC Fire & EMS Department Communications Director Lon Walls sent out a notification to the news media of a 2:00 press conference to discuss recent major EMS issues saying, “Kenneth B. Ellerbe, and other public officials will hold a press briefing in front of the Department’s headquarters.” But it turned out that Chief Ellerbe was not among the scheduled speakers. He spoke only when reporters made an issue of the fact that Chief Ellerbe was just standing in the background and hadn’t said anything.
As you will see below, WUSA-TV reporter Kristin Fisher used the word ”bizarre” to describe the press conference. Having watched the whole thing live on News Channel 8, I would say Kristin’s description is probably accurate. It wasn’t just Chief Ellerbe’s diminished role at the briefing. There was the ”system worked” comment from Dr. David Miramontes, an assistant chief and the department’s medical director that you knew as you heard it would be one of the headlines of the day. And then there was the image of both the chief and the doctor wearing sunglasses in front of the TV cameras. There were so many basic rules of PR/Media Relations 101 violated by today’s event and the entire week that if someone in DC attending EMS Today was paying attention they would have enough material to teach a whole class on just this for next year’s convention.
On the plus side, Deputy Mayor Paul Quander and Deputy Fire Chief Demetrios Vlassopoulos both did a nice and clear job of defending the decision of the crew of Engine 33 to scoop up a stroke victim last night and make a run for the hospital rather than wait for an ambulance that wasn’t going to make it to the scene anytime soon. Quander was also very clear in his promise that “everyone will be held accountable” from the front lines to management in the investigation of why so many ambulances were unavailable Tuesday evening when a police officer was struck on his motorcycle.
It took three days, but the District’s fire chief finally addressed why an injured police officer had to wait almost twenty minutes for an ambulance Tuesday night. That officer is still in the hospital in serious condition after being hit by a car while stopped on his motorcycle.
The remarks came during a bizarre press conference Friday afternoon. It was held at the fire departments headquarters, so you would expect the fire chief to do most of the talking. But that wasn’t the case. Chief Kenneth Ellerbe didn’t say a word until the end of the press conference when a WUSA9 reporter asked him to address his department’s response time Tuesday night.
“I tell you our department responded as best it could,” said Chief Ellerbe.
One of his Assistant Fire Chiefs went so far as to say, “Tuesday, the system worked.”
Edward Smith, the president of city’s firefighters union, disagrees.
“There was a delay of 8 minutes calling for mutual aid from Prince George’s County. Communications should have known right off the bat that there were no units available and that mutual aid was necessary,” said Smith.
To make matters worse, a stroke patient in Southeast had to be rushed to the hospital Thursday night on a fire truck. The closest ambulance was seven miles away.
“The reason an ambulance was selected seven miles away was not because we had numerous units out of service or broken. They were just running a lot of calls yesterday during rush hour because that’s when the demand peaked,” said Gerald Coles, Acting Assistant Fire Chief for Operations for DC Fire and EMS.
In an effort to ease the demand, the fire department announced Friday an EMS Redeployment Plan, which would keep two ambulances on standby at all times.
“The plan was implemented starting yesterday,” said Chief Ellerbe.
The Chief says they’ve been working on the plan for months, and that the timing is just a coincidence. But Smith says this is the first he’s ever heard about it and that the timing is highly questionable.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but two ambulances is not enough,” said Smith.
The District’s Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice, Paul Quander, has launched an investigation into Tuesday’s nights lengthy response time.
“If there is responsibility at management, at supervision, or at the lowest level, everyone will be held accountable,” said Quander.
Quander says there’s also reason to believe that the person who hit the officer did so deliberately. Three people have already been arrested and charged in the hit and run, but more charges could be coming. D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier declined to talk about the case, except to say that her officer has a long recovery ahead.
District officials are defending a decision to transport a 79-year-old stroke victim to the hospital on a fire truck.
The Deputy Mayor for Public Safety says there were so many calls for service Thursday night, there were no ambulances available east of the Anacostia River.
It is a fact that does not sit well with the man’s family.
D.C. fire officials say there were plenty of ambulances to meet demand in the city until about 4:30 p.m. Thursday when 911 was overwhelmed with calls for help.
Every ambulance was in service and assigned when Ida Sheppard called to say her husband was having a stroke. A paramedic was on the scene within three minutes, but the closest ambulance was over seven miles away.
Just after 5 p.m., Sheppard called 911 to say her husband, Morrison, was in distress and needed help right away.
A few minutes later, Engine 33, which happens to be just down the street from where the Sheppards live on Atlantic Street, was in front of the house and a paramedic inside.
“They said he needs to be taken to the hospital right away,” said Ida Sheppard in an interview Friday. “We are going to take him to GW because they have a stroke unit.”
Sheppard says she was fine with that and watched as the firefighters loaded her husband into the engine.
“They had to carry him out in their arms … He couldn’t walk,” she said.
Sheppard praised the care the crew on Engine 33 gave her husband, but she finds it upsetting an ambulance was unavailable.
“I would like the mayor to know there was no ambulance,” said Sheppard. “I planned on calling him … It shouldn’t happen here in Ward 8 where we are paying income taxes and real estate taxes.”
At a Friday afternoon news conference, city officials had nothing but praise for the firefighters on Engine 33.
“We had no units out of service (for) mechanical (reasons) yesterday,” said Deputy Fire Chief Demetrios Vlassopoulos. “No transport units, ambulances or medic units. They were all serving the citizens. They were all meeting the 911 demand. This incident yesterday was a good decision by the firefighter paramedic on the scene.”
At the same news conference, the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety says he was still trying to determine why there were no ambulances available earlier this week to assist a D.C. police officer seriously injured in a hit-and-run.
Tommy Wells, the head of the D.C. city council’s Judiciary Committee, says he has told the deputy mayor and the fire chief he wants answers.
“I want to know exactly what is going on,” said Wells. “Do we have a staffing shortage? Do we have a problem with not enough ambulances? So I will give the administration two weeks to do a full search, report, investigation so we can get to the bottom of it.”
Wells says he will then hold an oversight hearing in hopes of getting the issue resolved.
The deputy mayor also said Friday the fire department has put into place a plan that will hold two ambulances in reserve every shift so if one breaks down, the crew will go to the backup.
Ida Sheppard says her husband is in stable condition and resting.
For the past week a story has been brewing in Estero, Florida where firefighters, who had posed for a 2011 charity calendar, had been ordered on December 8th to attend a fundraiser at a private home and act as shirtless bartenders for a group of women. According to the news stories, the firefighters from Station 42 were on-duty and attended the event in a staff car leaving the fire engine out of service. The reports indicate the firefighters opted to add tank tops instead of just wearing bunker pants and suspenders.
Gathering what I can on the Internet, it appears the local fire commission is extending the life of this story. They are only now addressing important questions that should have been made clear a week ago. They are also doing it in a haphazard way that will help to keep this story in front of the public. Instead the goal from the start should have been to get the bad news out and done with you so you can move on. Declaring it a dead issue, as one reporter quotes officials, is not going to stop the reporters from knocking at your door.
It appears the story was first reported on December 13 (click here to watch it). Fire Chief Scott Vanderbrook talked with a reporter and the Fire Commission last Tuesday night. The chief made the case that as long as the firefighters weren't consuming the alcohol it wasn't a problem. The chief also indicated that in the past 30 days they had 42 instances of fire stations being closed for fundraisers, pub ed and training.
Station 42 was shut down for a few hours and the firefighters, who were also on duty, attended the event at a resident's home to serve alcohol. "They were still available for calls and were in a staff vehicle. We just took the truck out of service."
Chief Vanderbrook told the Fire Commission about the issue during Tuesday night's meeting, but only told them about the closing of the fire station for a couple of hours and not about the firefighters going topless or serving alcohol.
The commission all said they did not think that Vanderbrook did anything wrong and even decided to give him a 5% raise after the discussion about the fundraiser.
And then there was more coverage yesterday from both WFXTV (click here for the video) and WBBH-TV (above). In these reports union official Roberto Medina makes the case that firefighters felt like puppets and that an investigation should be done because the fire commissioners do not have a complete story. In fact, the commissioners reaction to reporters indicate that a week after this story first made news they still don't have answers to some basic questions.
Fox 4 tried to contact the chairman of the Estero fire commission, Richard Schweers, to see if that would be a violation. He said he did not know alcohol was served, but would not grant us an interview.
We also reached out to Commissioner Frank Messana who also said he too was unaware of alcohol being served at the fundraiser. He said that does raise some serious questions about whether that type of behavior is acceptable and that it should be brought before the commission.
West Hazleton (PA) Fire Department Deputy Chief Patrick Ward has been charged with soliciting a prostitute who also claims she was supposed to meet Ward on another occasion at the firehouse. According to Amanda Christman at StandardSpeaker.com the department issued a statement saying, "We take these allegations very seriously and will pursue the appropriate and necessary actions in the near future."
According to police, a woman identified as Erin Davis of Wilkes-Barre tried to enter a vehicle that police had stopped on North Broad Street at 2:55 a.m.. Thursday. Police said Davis was placed under arrest when a check on her identification revealed she was wanted on an active arrest warrant. Davis told the arresting officer that she had just left a "booty call" at "Pat the firefighter's house."
According to the arrest papers, Davis told police Ward had also called her a few weeks ago to arrange a meeting at the borough fire department where they planned to engage in sex. Davis said when she got to the fire house, Ward told her to go back home because there was a police officer in the building with him.
From the standpoint of handling bad news the West Hazelton Fire Department appears to be doing the right thing. Instead of running and hiding from it they are addressing it head on. Read the entire article and you will note that the department is not making excuses for what happened, is not blaming the press and is making sure their response is with the original story.
Often what happens is a department will say no comment or that it is a personnel issue and we can't talk about it. Then, after getting mad about seeing it in the local newspaper or on TV, they decide to respond. This just stretches the bad news into a multi-day story.
The only thing that might make this perfect is if they could have provided information on Deputy Chief Ward's status. That is still an open question that could give this story new life. As long as there isn't more bad news connected to this case that hasn't been released (not putting it all out is another way to get additional days of unwanted news coverage) I give them a B plus.
Let me say from the outset of this critique (or, if you prefer, Dave's Monday morning quarterbacking), what I saw in news coverage (and that is my only source of info for details on this story), gives me a great deal of respect for Chief Lynn Johnson of the West Platte Fire District in Missouri. The chief had a couple dozen angry citizens and a gaggle of TV reporters demanding answers at a City Council meeting a week after a July 4th fire where a business owner died. The main allegation by the citizens is that it took 14 minutes to put water on the fire and they have video to prove their point.
Chief Johnson didn't run or hide and appeared to keep her cool at the Monday night gathering. That's not always an easy thing to do when your department is under attack. In addition, the chief admitted to a reporter there was a water problem and promised to investigate. I have seen situations like this handled much, much worse by even big city chiefs (not that they necessarily have a lock on doing things correctly).
That said, I think this sticky situation could have been handled in a manner that would have been much better for the chief, the department, the political leaders and, most important, the citizens. My goal here is not to blast anyone, but use this incident as a reminder that extinguishing the type of fires that spread raw emotion through a community, can be almost as important as putting out the ones that require you to place the wet stuff on the red stuff. It is crucial for the well being of your department's reputation that you have pre-plans and SOPs/SOGs for both type of fires.
As I have long advocated, the guiding principle behind such planning is to get the facts out, get them right and get the issue behind you as rapidly as possible so you can work on rebuilding your image in the community.
West Platte Chief Lynn Johnson at Monday's meeting from KSHB-TV.
As we have pointed out before, bad news doesn't get better or smell better with age. By all accounts the chief had enough information to express concern over the loss of life, answer the allegations made by the citizens, acknowledge they were correct in their complaint about a delay in getting water on the fire, correct misinformation about the length of time it took to fix the problem and explain the steps being taken to make sure this doesn't happen again on her watch.
Instead, it is clear to me the very measured response by Chief Johnson to the citizens, via the press, is just delaying the inevitable and letting this story live for another day. What is unclear is if the way it was handled was the choice of Chief Johnson or if she was following the orders of her bosses.
The chief refused to go on camera and apparently did not make a statement in front of the council (if she did, it was not covered in the accounts I viewed). But Chief Johnson did make statements to reporters off-camera:
Lynn Johnson, the Fire Chief, did not feel comfortable talking about the tape on camera until she got a chance to see it. But she did say they did not wait 14 minutes to use water to fight the fire and that they had received conflicting reports about whether or not a person was trapped inside.
The fire chief of the West Platte Fire Protection District now has a copy of the video. She told (reporter Dan) Weinbaum that there was a delay in getting water at the fire scene, but it did not hinder the firefight.
I just can't imagine, a week after the fire, the chief didn't have a pretty good idea what the issue was with getting water. Whether the chief determined it was mechanical or a training problem she should have been able to explain it in more detail (even without the video) by Monday and gotten this behind her.
In other words, cut your losses and do so quickly. It is the same thought process you might use on the fireground. What's burned is burned, I can't change that fact, but I can prevent it from taking out the next building or the block.
Your quick action in a time when reputations are destroyed at the speed of light, thanks to the Internet, is crucial. How deep seated the damage is to your department's image can be directly related to the speed and depth in which you respond when bad news happens.
Consider the image of your department in the digital age as a neighborhood of lightweight constructed homes on a very windy day, with the houses built six feet apart, with no sprinkler systems and no real fire resistive barriers in the outside walls. If you don't get to a room and contents fire in this neighborhood very quickly and put it out you will be chasing the flames from home to home. Failing to decisively and rapidly attack a reputation issue can turn a fire that slightly chars the department's image into a conflagration that wipes out your standing in the community.
Remember, people will often forgive you for your mistakes if you have given them a reason to trust in you. But it makes it much more difficult to earn their forgiveness when they don't feel you have been honest and open and you aren't answering their questions in a timely manner. Just as in the Alameda, California drowning story, this story in Weston, Missouri is ultimately about the public's trust and confidence in their fire department. If they have questions, no matter how wrong-headed they are, you don't look good when those answers aren't provided as soon as the information is known.
In addition, if Chief Johnson did say, as the reporter paraphrased, the delay "did not hinder the firefight", that was probably not a well thought out statement. The fire service telling the public on one hand that every second counts when fire breaks out and then indicating an eight minute delay in getting water did not negatively impact operations doesn't wash. You are not going to win that, especially when there is video of the incident that shows otherwise.
I believe this story would go away a lot faster and the department would look a lot better if the chief had been able to get up at the council meeting and and say something similar to this:
"It was very clear to anyone who saw us in the initial stages of this fire that we had difficulty in getting water at the proper pressure into the hose firefighters first used to attack the flames. For eight minutes we struggled to correct this problem. It was a mechanical (or human) failure. I have taken the following immediate steps to correct this problem as we investigate further … . I will keep our citizens and council informed every step of the way during this investigation.
Each member of this department expresses their sincere sorrow over the loss of life. We can not tell you if the water issue had an impact on the death of the owner of the store. But in many ways that is irrelevant because this water problem just shouldn't have happened and my job as chief is to prevent it from occurring again".
The chief should have also released any known facts about the fire and the problem.
Now, I would ask any of you to tell me what this chief or any other chief or department would lose by making a statement like this and then answering the questions of the citizens and the press?
With such a statement you have responded to the concerns of the people you serve in a timely manner, with facts, transparency and compassion. I believe it would buy you a world of good in a bad situation. What would be the downside? Why do so many leaders avoid doing this?
Stuff happens. Deal with it and move on. Don't prolong your agony or theirs.
Make fun of Jon Hannan's fire helmet and you can be sure you will hear from him. The Charlotte, North Carolina chief found himself on the receiving end of jokes from a radio team on WEND 106.5, Charlotte's alternative rock station. After seeing Chief Hannon on TV wearing his helmet at a four-alarm fire early Wednesday morning, Woody and Wilcox had some things to say. Chief Hannon heard it or heard about it saw it as an opportunity for some free publicity for the department. He came knocking on the radio station's door. The first two videos show the visit and the bottom one is from the four-alarm fire.
Super Bowl Sunday and Dave is trying to be relevant with a football tie in. It’s about the owner of the Washington Redskins, Dan Snyder. A Super Bowl Champion, no doubt. Certainly not his team since he’s owned it. But Snyder himself is a World Champion. Dan Snyder reigns supreme when it comes to uniting an entire city and region against you. And his most recent moves in the fields of public relations and image management give strong indication that the trophy should be Dan’s to keep.
Anyone who has heard me speak in recent years, or ever dealt regularly with Dave Statter the TV reporter, probably knows my views on dealing with a news organization that has published negative stories about you or your organization. I have a simple message: If you are going to complain about news coverage, complain about the facts of the story. Make sure it isn’t really just the bruised ego or hurt feelings of you or your boss doing the talking. Trust me, it’s good advice.
I never had the chance to share those words of wisdom with Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder. But even if I did run in those circles, history shows it’s advice Dan probably wouldn’t listen to.
I don’t know how much play this is getting beyond the Beltway, but here in Washington over the last few days you can’t go a couple of minutes without reading or hearing another negative assessment of Dan Snyder. These darts lobbed at Snyder are not about the dismal showing of Washington’s football team. Instead it’s about one of the worst examples of how to deal with negative news that we’ve witnessed in a long time. Pull up a seat, there’s a lot to learn from this master of turning a terrible public image into a horrendous one.
It’s as if Snyder purposely pasted “kick me” signs all over his body. Right now, everyone is obliging and kicking him hard. There’s no end in sight. Often, when a public figure is beaten down like this, at some point they might become a sympathetic figure. I don’t see that happening here. Just read the hundreds of comments attached to the articles I’ve linked to and you will see what I mean.
This latest chapter started on November 19 when Washington City Paper’s Dave McKenna wrote an article called The Cranky Redskins Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder. McKenna is a talented sports columnist who has never been afraid to question authority and the status quo. Snyder’s antics and ethics have long been a favorite topic of McKenna’s.
But the free, alternative paper McKenna works for is not what you would call a major player in the Washington media world. Certainly not something a powerful businessman like Snyder needs to worry about. It’s as if McKenna has been constantly barking away like a wiener dog at the feet of a giant and poweful Great Dane (I would have used Clifford the Big Red Dog here, but comparing Snyder to Clifford might ruin the animated canine’s image for generations of children). This article caused Snyder to do more than just shake off the tiny nuisance and move on. Suddenly Dan Snyder saw McKenna as a pit bull that needed to be euthanized.
Snyder’s plan for handling this was about as subtle and well thought out as the much publicized Redskins’ stadium policy of October and November 2009. That one had security people trashing fan’s signs brought to Fed Ex Field because Dan’s feelings were hurt by a very strong anti-Snyder sentiment following a decade of impulsive, bone head moves in running the team. Management tried unsuccessfully to get the public to swallow the company line that the signs were suddenly a safety issue.
I covered that story and talked to legendary DC sports PR guy Charlie Brotman. Charlie, one of the nicest guys around, and rarely publicly critical of anyone, had some advice for Snyder. Essentially, Charlie told Dan to stop wasting his time by trying to control what people think. These actions were further destroying Syder’s reputation with the public. Instead, Charlie urged Snyder to start reaching out and connecting with the fans. Pretty solid advice.
If it’s advice Dan Snyder heard, he ignored or forgot it by November 2010 when he came up with the plan to deal with McKenna. Instead of contacting the columnist or his editor about what Snyder thought were great factual errors, Dan, always the businessman, went right for the money. The general counsel and COO for the Redskins, David Donovan, wrote a letter to the investment company that owns the parent company that owns the Washington City Paper. Besides listing all of the ways McKenna’s article harmed Snyder, the letter made clear what damage would come to Atalaya Capital Management if this wasn’t dealt with to the satisfaction of the Redskins owner. And it is this portion of the letter, that stands heads above the rest of the Snyder PR circus, and has Washington abuzz. Here it is:
Dan Snyder’s public relations policy may not be a smart one, but it sure gets high marks for consistency. Just like destroying the fan’s signs when they had bad things to say about Dan, Snyder threatens to crush the news media. And this threat to sue has now become reality, again making headlines.
So, why have I spent all of this time on a blog dedicated to fire and EMS talking about the owner of a football team? Because, whether it’s Dan Snyder and the National Football League or a one pumper fire department in the middle of Snyderville, USA (my apologies to the folks of Snyderville, Utah) your image and how you tend to it matters. The mistakes Dan Snyder continually makes on the large scale are often made on the small scale by fire and EMS departments and the people who run them.
These are basic errors. Ones that any crisis management firm or good PR person or PIO would try to avoid. I’m sure Dan Snyder can afford the best in the business. It’s obvious that, like a few public safety bosses I’ve met through the years, Snyder and his ego think they know far better than the PR pros.
Dan Snyder and the Redskins made sure that a relatively little read article blasting the owner got enormous play, not just in Washington, but around the world. So much so that the City Paper’s server crashed on Wednesday. How often have I cautioned about turning a simple one day story into something much bigger?
Remember this: When your public relations policy is based on the fragile ego of a Dan Snyder, a fire chief or a mayor, you will lose every time.
If the reporter or columnist significantly gets the facts wrong, absolutely get out and fix that with the correct facts. This is something quite important in the digital age where information, accurate or inaccurate, is rapidly repeated over and over again on numerous sites. During a radio interview on Thursday, the Redskins COO David Donovan even acknowledged that very point in justifying their offensive against the City Paper saying, “In the Internet age, when something gets published, and it gets linked to and linked to and linked to — and you can go around the Internet and see the number of times people have linked to that column from the November City Paper.” But as the Post’s Dan Steinberg points out, that article is now getting a hell of a lot more links than it did originally (including now on the ever popular STATter911.com) and no one is really correcting any facts.
If the goal is to set the record straight, wouldn’t a better tactic have been to take the Washington City Paper up on its offer to get the facts out in a Dan Snyder penned guest column?
If it’s the opinion of a columnist you want to change, that isn’t going to happen by heavy handed, thuggish threats (which in Snyder’s case illustrates McKenna’s thoughts about the owner much better than what the sports columnist wrote in the first place).
Settling a score by trying to get a reporter or columnist fired just to keep the boss happy rarely works (again, you better have some facts to back it up). The same goes for the often used tactic of freezing out or not talking to a reporter who doesn’t play the way you want them to. All you will do is ensure your message isn’t heard with the coverage provided by that publication.
The short version of the response from Snyder and the Redskins is to argue that McKenna is out to get Snyder, that McKenna attacked Snyder’s wife, a breast cancer survivor and spokeswoman (an unfounded claim against McKenna that absolutely no one can sense of), and that a City Paper picture of Snyder as the devil is antisemitic.
Let me be so bold as to offer Dan Snyder, or even a fire or EMS chief who may be equally as sensitive, a different way to go. You’ve dug yourself a big hole that you are trying desperately to get out of. You have failed to provide any shoring and the walls are coming in. Stop burying yourself further by attacking the news media with nothing to really back it up except your hurt feelings. Ditch the ego. Write an open letter to the public and have a press conference telling everyone you’ve made lots of mistakes through the years, but this one tops them all. Take a lesson from Gene Weingarten and do this with a sense of humor. Make sure that sense of humor is directed at you. Beg for the public’s mercy, telling them you have learned your lesson and will do better in the future. Go the Hollywood route and tell everyone you will be in rehab for a few months. Then find a Betty Ford type clinic for egoholics and control freaks. You will know you have the right building because the doorway is extra tall and wide to enable those oversized heads and egos to enter.
In short, heed the words of my friend and former colleague Brett Haber, “The truth that Snyder fails to grasp is that the only way to stop being portrayed as such an unlikable figure — is to stop acting like one.”
Detroit Mayor Dave Bing made it pretty clear today that, while a lot was happening with Detroit fire and EMS services that left him unhappy, the most recent story was the final straw. It was another one by WJBK-TV reporter Charlie LeDuff. LeDuff and his advocacy, in your face style of journalism, clearly has had influence in Detroit. This story was about a wallet apparently taken during a CO alarm run at a citizen’s home that ended up in the quarters of Engine 40 and how the incident was handled by the department.
Reporter LeDuff used internal documents and information from sources to indicate there was a cover-up about the stolen wallet that extended all of the way to the office of Commissioner James Mack. Mayor Bing apparently found some credence to the TV news report. A day after the story aired the mayor requested and received the resignations of Mack and Deputy Fire Commissioner Seth Doyle.
Many of us were reminded of an important truth in life from the Watergate conspiracy of the 1970s. It is worth repeating for those who have forgotten or are too young and don’t know their history: The cover-up is worse than the crime.
Reading the reports written at various levels in this specific case you could come away with the impression there were members of Engine 40 sincere about making this family whole. They collected $150 to cover the cash and driver’s permit taken from the wallet. But you could also be left with a more sinister view of the reports.
Just two days ago I learned from an old friend who is a veteran fire officer in the Washington area that when he handled situations like this or wrote reports he always applied the “Dave Statter test”. He would ask himself, “How would this look if Statter got a hold of it and put it on Channel 9 News?”.
While I was flattered learning this after all these years, I know many other smart leaders have done similar things, but without using my name. I work for someone who applies the “Washington Post” test. In Detroit, if anyone was on the ball about this they would have used the “Charlie LeDuff test”. How would these reports look if LeDuff got them?
They found out that answer the hard way.
Reading through the reports the first thing that sticks out to me is that it is likely a crime was committed. Where did the fire department engage the police in this process? Also, a less charitable review of the reports could leave the perception for some that the cash given to the family was hush money.
On top of giving, at the very least, the impression of a cover-up, and then failing to apply the “Charlie LeDuff test”, Mayor Bing pointed out another major mistake by Commissioner Mack: He failed to keep his boss informed.
If you are a fire commissioner, chief or leader of any organization, you have stakeholders. Those stakeholders, especially your boss, should not first learn of bad news from a reporter or watch it on TV. If Commissioner Mack did not know prior to yesterday this should be SOP, he and the rest of Detroit know it now.
Let’s face it, things like a firefighter stealing a wallet happen in the fire service and everywhere else in life. If that was all this story was, Detroit most likely would not be looking for a new fire commissioner. But by compounding the original crime with people at every level of the Detroit Fire Department apparently failing to take appropriate action and then not telling the big boss, it becomes a very different type of story.
Here’s the advice from the person the “Dave Statter test” was named for. When the hint of a crime occurs in your department, take the appropriate action. If there has already been a cover-up, don’t compound it. And again, take appropriate action. Also, make sure you tell your boss about it. Then go put it out to the news media yourself with as much information as possible to get this story behind you. Don’t wait for Charlie LeDuff to knock on your door or call your boss.
This way the citizens will be better served and you will have a getter chance of getting a paycheck every two weeks.
This is a picture of Cornelius-Lemley Fire & Rescue’s Engine 5, a 2005 Seagrave, and how it looked yesterday morning. The good news is there were no injuries to the four firefighters on board. FireTruckBlog.com by Glenn Usdin has video posted of what this rig looks like after if was brought back on its wheels. Click here to see it.
More on this and other news in the fire apparatus world from FireTruckBlog.com by Glenn Usdin.
I am sure some will argue that if this is the only picture of the upside down engine, from a public relations standpoint it was a bad idea to release it. Why broadcast this image of the department?
That is a point you can’t discount, but I would argue the opposite. To me, the image it is showing is of a fire department that communicates openly and transparently with it’s citizens. It is letting the public know they can rely on their fire department as a source of accurate and timely information, whether the news is good or bad. And the person who they will get that info from is the man in charge.
A good example of getting the bad news out quickly, trying to get it behind you and moving on. Here is what Chief Barbee wrote:
Cornelius Engine 5 was responding to a reported structure fire in a commercial occupancy in Huntersville, NC. Engine 5 was traveling emergency traffic, with regard to the rainy and potentially icy conditions, South on Poplar Tent Rd. While responding, Engine 5 traveled onto a stretch of road encased with heavy black ice that was not visible from inside the cab which resulted in a loss of traction from the rear wheels as the road began to turn. The Engineer driving the apparatus took strict evasive maneuvers; however, the truck continued to slide for approximately 100 yards before the front right of the truck slid off of the road and the rear of the truck continued on ice. The end result was Engine 5 rolling over and coming to rest on the roof. Four firefighters were riding in the apparatus and sustained no injuries, though each were checked, all have been released by a physician for normal duties.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department responded and investigated the incident. The police report notes that the roads were “wet and icy” and the estimated travel speed was 25mph which was the sustained speed at time of impact.
The Cornelius-Lemley Fire Rescue Department recently purchased a 1995 Seagrave Engine to serve as a reserve engine company. This truck will now be placed to front line service and the citizens of the Cornelius-Lemley Fire Rescue district will not see any lapse in service.
The Cornelius-Lemley Fire Rescue Department requires all of its drivers to be certified as a North Carolina Emergency Vehicle Drivers and they must undergo a rigorous in house testing procedure that includes driving the truck on a predetermined driving course.
It has been described by many in the fire service as a “no-win situation”. For two weeks the South Fulton Fire Department in Northwestern Tennessee has been the focus of an enormous amount of discussion around the country and even around the world. The large majority of it has been negative. The fallout from this incident resulted in a physical assault on the fire chief. The chief, his firefighters and neighboring chiefs have also been the subject of phone, Internet and email threats. One chief tells me he’s even received two voodoo curses.
By now you know the South Fulton Fire Department was alerted to a fire at the home of Gene Cranick and his family but did not immediately respond because the Cranicks had not paid the department’s $75 membership fee. South Fulton and two other departments provide subscription-only fire protection to families in Obion County, a jurisdiction that does not have a fire department. South Fulton did finally respond when a call came in that the property of a neighbor, who is a subscriber was threatened by the fire. But the firefighters did nothing to save the Cranick home.
You have seen the videos on the Internet and heard the arguments on cable TV, including from such well known figures as Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann and Bill Maher. And you’ve read the comments on STATter911.com and elsewhere (the website slashdot.org has 2000 comments from the general public on this story).
This column is not meant to rehash the merits of what was and what wasn’t done on the fireground. The purpose is to look at it solely from a public image standpoint. The big question is, given the circumstances, was there any way to keep this story from having such a negative impact on the reputation of the South Fulton Fire Department, the other local departments and the fire service in general?
From my perspective after 38-years in broadcast news, much of it covering the fire service, the short answer is yes. Even though I am sitting at a computer screen 800 miles away and have never been to Obion County, I firmly believe some of this fallout could have been avoided.
Obviously, a lot of mistakes were made. But these missteps weren’t solely because this was a rural area lacking sophistication in dealing with a reputation management issue. I’ve seen many of these same costly errors made by big city fire chiefs.
There were also some very smart moves made by a two of the local chiefs. There are things to learn from each of them. I plan to talk about that in a future column. But today’s posting deals only with the initial response to the news media on the scene and how it set the stage for what was to come.
Running from the video was not the answer
No matter what your beliefs are about the actions of the South Fulton Fire Department on September 29, the video generally told reporters and the public all they needed to know: That firefighters watched and did nothing as a family’s home burned to the ground.
I wrote in a previous posting this was the equivalent of man biting dog. Whether you like it or not this is the definition of news. Blame the news media, but get used to it. This is what reporters do for a living.
If firefighters had made even a half-hearted attempt to spray water on the house, it is likely we wouldn’t be here discussing this story. The local news would have reported a house burned down and people lost their belongings. It would have stayed local.
But of course that didn’t happen. So now what do you do if you are the fire chief and the local news has video of you and your firefighters looking like they were at a marshmallow roast while a citizen’s home was destroyed? Very simple. You better deal with it and deal with it fast or get buried by it.
It was only when a neighbor’s field caught fire, a neighbor who had paid the county fire service fee, that the department responded. Gene Cranick asked the fire chief to make an exception and save his home, the chief wouldn’t.
We asked him why.
He wouldn’t talk to us and called police to have us escorted off the property. Police never came but firefighters quickly left the scene. Meanwhile, the Cranick home continued to burn.
In my time I have heard every excuse imaginable as to why a fire chief won’t talk to a reporter (often the reporter was me). I have found most of the reasons short-sighted and the tactic ill-advised. In this case I believe the actions blew the only chance the department had to soften the blow of the first report and possibly re-direct where the reporter was going with this story.
It is very legitimate for the press, and in turn the general public, to try and get answers as to why the fire department failed to take action to put out a fire. I have heard from people familiar with what transpired who claim the reporter acted poorly on the scene. That may or may not be the case, but by being uncooperative and not telling their story, the South Fulton firefighters looked like they had something to hide. If they weren’t already the bad guys by failing to put water on the fire, this sealed their fate and set the tone for much that followed.
The good guys. The bad guys. And the not so bad guys.
Even in a place where they may only be a weekly newspaper and no TV station, you no longer have the luxury of waiting and presenting a nice, neatly packaged story. The Internet has changed that for good.
Now Is Too Late (updated with Now Is Too Late 2) is the title of a book written by Gerald Baron that addresses this very issue. Over the last decade Baron has advised some of the biggest companies in the world that when the crisis hits they need to tell their own story and tell it now.
Many believe, like R Adams Cowley’s groundbreaking work in trauma, there is a golden hour for trying to take control of a story before it controls you. The Internet, texting, cell phone cameras and other tools of the digital age have changed the response time requirements when dealing with a reputation or crisis management type of issue.
But something that hasn’t changed is very important in understanding why this story became such terrible news for the fire department and the fire service. It has to do with how reporters tell stories. In his book Baron repeatedly points out that reporters are always looking to place white hats and black hats on the people and institutions in their stories. They are trying to clearly let you know who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.
Obviously, in this case most of the coverage placed the white hat on Mr. Cranick who lost his home. The black hats sat squarely on the heads of the fire chief and his firefighters who let the house burn.
With the visual image of the firefighters failing to do what we expect firefighters to do, even Baron or other top notch crisis communicators might have a tough time replacing the firefighters’ black hats with white ones. But I think there was a good chance those hats could have been gray if the fire chief had spoken up immediately and not tried to chase the press away.
What could the fire department have said at the scene of the fire?
In telling your story you have to be realistic and recognize that if you try to defend the indefensible, justifying to the world why it was okay for the firefighters to let a man’s house burn, you might as well keep shunning the press.
Furthermore, if the chief’s message is blame all of this on Mr. Cranick and his family, you are again likely to be digging yourself a deeper hole. Yes, we know Mr. Cranick didn’t pay his bill despite three notices and if he had paid it there wouldn’t be a story. You really aren’t going to win friends and influence people by putting the blame on someone who just lost all of his belongings and his pets. It doesn’t do you any good to kick a man while he is down. This is not the image you want the public to have of firefighters. Firefighters are supposed to be the ones who rush to take care of people like Mr. Cranick. Those who are experiencing one of the worst days of their lives.
To me, here’s the key to the fire chief’s response at the scene. A week after the fire, at a press conference held by a neighboring fire chief, we learned details behind a lengthy all-out effort by the local chiefs to ditch this subscription plan for residents of Obion County. It turns out the municipal fire chiefs generally don’t like the subscription program and had long-ago presented their plan to change things. But by the time that press conference was finally held, this important information didn’t do all that much to impact a story that had, for days, raced across the Internet and the cable news channels. Letting the public in on this a week later (and coming from someone other than the Fulton fire chief) is like making a trench cut on the immediate exposure when the fire has already spread to the end of the block.
The South Fulton Fire Department chief should have shared this information with the reporter at the scene of the fire. The message is very simple:
“This is a policy we as firefighters absolutely hate. It tears us apart to be forced to watch this happen. It is not what firefighters are supposed to do. We have been put in this untenable position by the short sightedness of the political leaders of Obion County. I have been working with the other fire chiefs in the area to change this system. We have presented a proposal to abolish the subscription fire service in this area. It has been ignored for two years. We need the public’s help in getting this changed so other families don’t have to suffer like the Cranicks.”
The most important thing about this message is that it is the truth and there is plenty of paperwork and other evidence to back it up.
It allows the chief to admit and not run from the basic story, and to explain why firefighters failed to act like firefighters. It immediately tells the public and the reporters you are on their side.
While this may not excuse firefighters from having to answer the tough moral and ethical questions about failing to take action, it makes clear who put you in this situation. I can assure you there isn’t a reporter who wouldn’t include this in their story. Instead of the headline reading Firefighters Watch House Burn, it might have said Fire Chief Blasts Policy That Let House Burn.
If this had been done right away, the fire chief’s message would have been part of the story as it made its way around the world via the Internet. It would have likely been a prominent part of any stories that followed, including the cable network gabfests. There would have been a lot more people standing up for the firefighters.
But it’s not that simple Dave
Yes, I am aware that there could have been plenty of factors that would have prevented the chief from making this statement. Among them, the chief’s bosses in South Fulton might not have allowed him to take on the political leaders of Obion County. Just as likely, is that dealing with the reporters in this manner may not have been something the fire chief even considered.
I’m sharing these thoughts not to point fingers at South Fulton by telling them what they did wrong (they have already heard plenty of that). My goal is to look at the bigger lessons for the fire service.
The fire service has plans for its response to all kinds of emergencies. But most departments don’t have a real plan in place for dealing with a situation that can absolutely destroy the trust the public has in the fire department and its firefighters. Just as a fireground commander needs to visualize where that fire is going next, someone needs to quickly figure out where the story is going before you have a different kind of conflagration on your hands.
The South Fulton episode reminds us just how fast and how far a story impacting your reputation can travel. It shows that you need to be prepared so your message can travel WITH that story and not way, way behind it.