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More citizen complaints: 'We lost our home. They were supposed to save our home.' Comparing TV news coverage from fires in Utica and Buffalo.

Previous coverage of Utica fire

The headline is a quote taken from the video above. It comes from a woman whose family lost its home to a fire on Humboldt Parkway in Buffalo, New York Wednesday afternoon. "They were supposed to save our home" shows that expectations are often high that the fire department is going to come in and save the day.

Much like the deadly fire in Utica on Monday, this is another example of citizens making claims that firefighters didn't do enough. Should reporters have aired or published the allegations made in either of these stories and how should a fire department respond?

In one of these cases I think the news people got it right and in the other, while they really tried to be fair and balanced, they blew it. In both incidents I give the fire department response high marks.

As you probably recall from the Utica story, photojournalist Tim Fisher went the extra step to look beyond the sound bites of distraught family and friends and put the allegations in perspective with a more than six minute story that ran the day after the fire (see the story below).

What Tim Fisher did is not the norm for TV news. Management usually doesn't give the time to reporters and photographers to piece something like that. And six minutes is more than four minutes longer than the usual TV story. Fisher is also a veteran. He's a 63-year-old newsman who previously worked in Minneapolis. His experience gave him the knowledge of how fire departments work and how these stories play out.

The story from Buffalo (at the top of this post) is a much more typical TV news story. It lasts about two minutes and was put together under a much tighter deadline. A husband and wife, after losing their home and all of their possessions, question firefighting tactics. They are upset over how fast water was applied to the fire and make claims about hydrants not being used.

The presentation is actually quite balanced in that it makes sure the response from Buffalo Fire Department officials is not only in the story itself but summarized in the lead-in by both the anchors and the reporter. The Buffalo Fire Department points out they were making an aggressive interior attack when firefighters began receiving electrical shocks. They then switched to a defensive operation. One captain was hospitalized with burns. 

But here is where I am critical of this story. There is no there there.

Making sure that all sides impacted by a story are heard is an important part of journalism. Tim Fisher told us, and I agree, that part of the job is to give voice to those who might not otherwise have one and ask the important questions.

The other part of the reporter's job is to investigate those allegations and see if there is merit. A reporter should verify if there is actually validity to the claim. People say a lot of things. That doesn't mean it's true and that all of it should be on television or in the newspaper. A reporter's job is to try and determine what is really relevant to the story. In the Buffalo case I am not sure the reporter did that good of a job.

I say this because the reporter didn't show us a bit of evidence to back up the allegations that there was a delay in applying water or that nearby hydrants weren't used. A cell phone from the couple with a video on it is held up to the TV camera, but it shows us nothing. The WIVB-TV reporter says in the story, "Several hydrants sit adjacent to the dwelling and appeared untouched". What exactly does a "touched" hydrant look like a day after a fire?

Video from another station (below) shows some master streams and a lot of lines. They were getting water from somewhere. If these claims were true, the reporter didn't convince me.

When I worked in TV news I dealt with this same scenario countless times (and I imagine I mishandled it once or twice). Usually it was about what took the fire department so long to get there. I did my best to check out each one. In 95 percent of the cases (a very, very rough estimate by me) there was no evidence to back up the allegations and it never made my story. In the other five percent I aired the claims, but tried to put them in perspective and show other evidence that there was some validity to what the people were saying.

The Utica story would be a tougher call for me. That one is the much harder one to ignore completely in your story. It is a much more significant event with an enormous amount of emotion. Looking at the extensive coverage by WKTV-TV on the day of the fire, I liked that they mentioned the criticism but did not make it the focus of their coverage. The addition of Tim Fisher's story though, put it all in perspective.

What I was particularly impressed with in both stories is that the fire departments didn't run from these allegations. They addressed them head-on and did so with a great deal of sensitivity and compassion toward the victims. Plus, they made sure their response was part of the original story and not a day or more later. Just like Tim Fisher's story, you don't often see that.

Comments - Add Yours

  • Anonymous

    I wonder if that is the homeowners' or reporter's car blocking the hydrant during the video clip.

  • David

    There is a whole lot more sensationalism and a longer running story for the news agency by airing this controversy. 

  • Mick Mayers

    I'm always impressed by the "you were supposed to save the day" approach.  While I am sympathetic and at least in my case, will do everything within my abilities given the resources available to save the day, I'm reminded that it wasn't my negligence, ignorance, etc. that caused the problem to begin with (at least in most cases, implying the human factor involved in most incidents).  
    As a chief fire officer, I have to come in and make the best of what we've got with what I brought.  If the public fails to provide adequate tools, manpower, protection infrastructure, etc. and we have done our job at least telling them that we can't do the impossible with their lack of support, then there shouldn't be any complaints in the aftermath.
    We have to be proactive: make the best with what you have, but always sure to educate people on how to prevent disaster, while also reminding them its a team effort and they are part of that fire-safe community team.

  • mofiretech1

    Of equal or greater concern were the significant hazards of a half-story fire with the interconnected non-fired stopped concealed spaces in the low attics, high attic and multiple dormers. Those conditions place firefighters at risk from fire around, over and sometime under their location along with the collapse hazard of dormers and other heavy construction. 
    Based on the several LODDs each year in half-story top floor incidents, the withdrawal of firefighters who also faced an electrical hazard is well understood.
    While we don't know how long the fire burned undetected, the total destruction of the third floor certainly indicates the probability of heavy involvement on arrival.

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  • Anonymous

    I am a firefighter outside of New York State.  What people don't understand is safety is the number one priority.  If the firefighters were getting electrocuted (which is often a possibility until the electricity is cut by the power company) it is a danger to us.  A dead firefighter won't be able to put the fire out at all…and people don't understand that there are times that we have to pull back away, even though we really want to be in there fighting the fire. 
    It is always that the people expect us to always save the day…well…we will if we can and we can do it safely.  My heart goes out to the family and I wish them the best with this situation.

  • ukfbbuff

    The are six sides to every fire, two, the roof and basement usually don't get coverage unless, the roof has ventilation teams and or ladders pipes in operation, which are clearly visbile.
     Divisions A thru D may only appear in one or two parts of  a video news report, and can lead to speculation that on that  particular Division not enough was being done.
      Firefighter safety comes first-"Fight Fire Aggressively, but prvide for SafetyFfirst". Going defensive till the power was de-energinzed was the right thing to have done.
     My 2 cents in comparing all three news stories,
       Utica- The reporter added his thoughts along with the tragedy that occured. It wasn't just the "scoop" of the moment. He too  has emotions in doing his job.
      Buffalo- This was unfortunately a  structural loss and contents fire, that  did not have any fatalities and the complaint about fireground problems can easily be explained. Hopefully the family will find a new place to live shortly.
       Orange County, Huntington Beach, Ca., Fire. As with the Buffalo fire,  was more a direct media story. Assoc. Press., today reported the Loss at $10 Million Dollars for all three structures.
      Both the Buffalo and Orange Co., fire had tactical prblems that were worked on to beovercome, electrical hazard or high winds and as I said were property losses.
      The Utica fire: was different, in that human emotions were touched due to the loss of life.

  • Bill

    I did notice that one of the hydrants shown in the report had a car parked infornt of it. Just get used to these stories happening more, as City Hall continues to cut, cut, cut the fire department our abilities will be further hampered. Its just sosmething that is going to keep happening.

  • oldhead

    It's ALWAYS someone else's fault.  At least they LOVE their Buffalo Firefighters…

  • Chief1ff

    I have to say that the reporter on the Uitica story is by far the most balaced report on a fire I have seem in 20+ years in the fire service!

  • Anonymous

    You can see in the 2nd buffalo video they had a hydrant hooked with a charged ldh going to the pumpers intake.  It in the bottom of the screen in the first two seconds.

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