Friday, February 5, 2010

Didn’t You? Didn’t You? I Thought You Did. No? Me Neither!

By my count, this fire department had FIVE chances to get this call right. They didn’t.

Why? Because, according to their internal report, they didn’t follow their own procedures, which led to an interesting discussion.

Last night, after Chris Kaiser, the featured guest of FirefighterNetCast had concluded his portion of the Old School vs. New School program, FireCritic Rhett and FireDaily John went to a discussion format and wanted to discuss the Dekalb County, GA Fire Department response to a fatal fire.

When the story first broke, a discussion thread popped up and naturally, I had some opinions based upon the limited information that was coming out at the time. My initial reaction was that I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I was stunned by it.

Before long though, there was a groundswell under this story fueled by the family of the deceased and from members in the news media wanting some answers. To date, five firefighters have been terminated and the chief has resigned as fallout from the incident at 1687 Houghton Court North, Dunwoody Georgia; home to Ann Bartlett, age 74.

I was in the chat room at the time and someone flashed me to call in, so I did. I weighed in heavy on the discussion of this incident along with Rhett, John and Chris Naum. I was going off of my recollections, but I was up to speed with the exception that I hadn’t read the internal report of the incident from Chief Foster.

While we were concluding the discussion, I got a message from the chat room from a buddy who felt that we were “piling on” this fire department. I pointed out that I didn’t bring the subject up, but was merely offering my opinions; something that I’ve been known to do.

He wanted to know if we were “perfect”. Of course we aren’t, but I also thought that you would have to be drunk or crazy to get an incident THIS WRONG. My buddy thought that we were offering strong opinions based upon speculative journalism and even if the story was barely correct, he was still upset that we were “kicking a department when they were down”.

Well, I initiated some soul searching right there in the chat room and upon reflection, he was right…to a degree. Perhaps on any other day, the good men and women of this department might very well have gotten it right, but one could make a strong argument, based upon the internal report, that it might not have been a different outcome, if complacency and disregard for written protocols were routinely ignored.

In the end, I told my buddy that I had over reacted, but the emotional value of this incident was very high for everyone involved and for those of us who read and analyze incidents for lessons learned. But, I also wanted to read the internal report, re-visit the discussion thread and follow up with local news to make sure that I wasn’t being a total wienie on this one.

Upon further review, I stand by my comments. Everyone involved with that run on that day bear some responsibility and not just the officers who have been terminated or have resigned. The guys riding backwards get some, too and I will be glad to explain.

First of all, the entire time that was spent on the first call was 7 minutes and 22 seconds. Do you think that a thorough search could have been initiated and terminated in this short time frame?

Engine 18 arrived at 1:15:10 in the AM with Truck 18 and Engine 12 arriving shortly thereafter. The scene was cleared at 1:22:32 in the AM with a report of no smoke or fire.

If you read the internal report, you will notice that: captain of Engine 18 arrives first and does not establish incident command and no one exits the vehicle. Truck 18 arrives, but fails to notify dispatch that they are on scene, does not establish command and the captain states for the report that they “looked at the house; no signs of smoke; house was dark”. In other words, no one checked the house. Engine 12 arrives and goes to the hydrant. The captain states for the report that he did not hear anyone establish incident command and watches as Engine 18 and Truck 18 leave the area. Engine 12 leaves without noticing smoke or fire, but no one checked the house. Battalion 1 did not hear command established and did not insure that command was initiated. Battalion 1 never made it to the scene. The shift commander was contacted by the dispatch supervisor who stated that she felt that it was a legitimate call. The shift commander was not monitoring the radio traffic from the call, so he was unaware of the breach in protocols.

Many think that establishing incident command is a royal pain. Some even think that it is over kill. When you examine the missteps in this incident, it appears to be very well suited for command and control, because apparently, establishing incident command would have been the kick to the head that this incident needed to engage the officers into doing their jobs.

But, where were the “guys who ride backwards”. The working stiffs; the rank and file? Does it take a direct order by an officer to activate your common sense? Not one firefighter could say, “Hey, Cap; permission to walk to the house to talk to the owner”? You could even be a little more demanding without risk of discipline, I would think.

Yes; all officers have been terminated and based upon the internal report, it is justified; sadly.

I have a problem with the chief riding out of Dodge at a fast gallop, but the department will heal faster, too.

The family of Ann Bartlett wants an apology from the firefighters who were involved in this incident.

And if I was a resident of this county, I would want some assurances that asses will come out of the seats of the trucks and check my welfare, if needed. And that’s really my biggest beef. Even after not smelling smoke or seeing fire, someone could have, at the very least, checked on this lady’s welfare, just to re-assure her.

But, that would have required someone to get out of the truck.

You know; to make an effort.

I don’t think that this is what we had in mind when we talk about accountability.

Now might be a good time to go back and review policies and read that book on leadership again.


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