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Firefighter charged with burglarizing home of elderly woman he took to the hospital. Osceola County, Florida fire chief gets how to handle bad news.

Click above to watch story and interview with Chief Richard Collins.

At some point bad news will happen to almost every fire department and it will likely bring those pesky reporters to the door asking tough questions. This week it is Osceola County Fire Rescue's moment in the spotlight after Firefighter Douglas Werk was arrested and charged with breaking into the home of an elderly woman he had taken to the hospital and stealing her guns. This may be a pattern of behavior. WESH-TV reports, "Detectives said Werk may have been scouting out homes to burglarize" and that the firefighter was already on administrative duty after the Osceola County Sheriff's office investigated him for snooping around a different property in February. 

The response by a fire chief faced with this situation is crucial to how quickly the issue can be put behind them and the department moves on trying to restore its reputation. Too often the chief won't talk to reporters or let anyone in his department come clean about what happened. "It's a personnel matter" or "it's under investigation" are some of the lame excuses used as cover to keep from telling the truth.  Usually this makes a bad situation worse, stretching a one day story into multiple days and turning a small brush fire into a conflagration. What can be incinerated in that fire is the department's image and any good will it has built up in the community.

Osceola County Fire Rescue Chief Richard Collins apparently doesn't subscribe to the bar the doors and circle the wagons theory. While I have no idea what transpired with reporters prior to his TV interview about the arrest of Werk, the chief's on-camera performance was damn near perfect. Chief Collins not only talked about the arrest but confirmed the February investigation that prompted Werk's removal from the firehouse. Collins made it clear to WESH-TV that even the possibility of wrongdoing taints the department. Here are some quotes from the chief:     

"If these allegations are proven and he is convicted, it's a disgrace to the community, it's a disgrace to our department and quite frankly it's a disgrace to our profession as firefighters."

"Our folks do a great job. The actions of this individual, if proven to be true, are not reflective of our department, our agency."

Contrast this leadership style to some of what we have shown you from elsewhere around the country. Do you recall the Long Island fire company that did everything it could to avoid talking to a reporter about a Confederate flag in the firehouse and then prolonged the story when the department eventually decided to have the flag removed? (Click here.)

How about the Obion County, Tennessee case that made news around the world after firefighters didn't put out a fire in the home of a man who wasn't on the department's subscription list? That chief actually had a good story to tell about the local fire chiefs trying to change the antiquated system. Instead of talking about that with a reporter, the department tried to have the local TV news crew removed from the scene. (Click here.)

Probably the best lessons on what not to do have come from the two previous fire commissioners in Detroit who were constantly seen running from or avoiding a reporter asking questions about difficult issues. In fact, Detroit had a case somewhat similar to Osceola's when a wallet stolen from a citizen's home ended up in a Detroit firehouse. Instead of putting that incident quickly behind them, the failure to do the right thing at almost every level of the department resulted in the very public firing of Commissioner James Mack and a deputy. (Click here.)

Look at these stories and then tell me who you think has the right idea about dealing with bad news. 

This past Tuesday I gave a presentation for the IAFF-IAFC Labor Management Initiative sponsored by Virginia Professional Firefighters and we talked about these very issues. Anyone who has heard my talks knows my position: Get it out; Get it right; Get it behind you. I have a feeling the next group to hear me speak will likely see Chief Richard Collins pop up in the middle of my PowerPoint. 


Comments - Add Yours

  • burnedoutmedic

    even probies know to be the first to admit it when they screw up, otherwise it's going to a rough probation. funny how some people forget that very important lesson.

  • Frustrated

    Dave – You provide great advice and much needed at that to Fire Chiefs. Why is it that Fairfax County's Fire Chief Ron Mastin does not heed your advice? He has been running away from the two problems below and will not address the media, citizens or even his own members. The FD has taken no stance on these unfortunate situations linked below.
    So what would your advice be?

    • dave statter

      My advice is almost always to address issues like these directly and quickly. But I imagine Chief Mastin and any other chief in that position would often be getting a great deal of advice from the lawyers telling them not to say anything.

      In the private sector a CEO is usually faced with the lawyers on one side and the PR folks on the other with opposing views on what actions they should take. While the lawyers are telling the boss not to say anything the image folks want it out and behind them. The legal department worries that they will get killed in court, but the image people know if they lose the trust of the public the attornies may not have a company left to defend.

      There are also probably plenty of things that can be said that would not impact the case, including talking in general about not tolerating harassment.

      In general, the lawyers will tell you there is a cost for speaking about these types of things, but in the end a loss of confidence by the public and the employees of the organization may be a much greater cost to the organization.


  • ukfbbuff

      Chief  Masten did a good job, in the face of a difficult situation. Douglas Werk is making ALL Firefighters look bad. Confronting the issue "Head On" is the best way to address the issue.
      I learned this in my S-402  "Public Information Officer Course".
      Ed Schultz at MSNBC did essentially the same thing recently when he mis-spoke on his radio program.
      In the realm of Politics,  If you try to stall or cover things up as in the John Ensign or John Edwards  affairs, the public really takes a dim view on your personal character.
      If Douglas Werk is convicted of a crime/s then he should be suffer the penalities the Judge issues.

  • And?

    I guess I’m a little confused about your blog Dave. You posted articles about other departments being involved in some unruly behavior but you didnt post anything about this incident in Fairfax or write anything about it. Are you protecting Fairfax for anyreason? I guess it is your right to be selective you are the author.

    • dave statter

      Yes, I am protecting Fairfax County. And I am receiving good money to do so.

      It’s actually a good question that deserves more than my smartass answer. I saw and read the story by my friend Tom Jackman and had every intention of running it the day it was published. But I just can’t post the whole article. It would be a copyright violation. And I didn’t have the the time to spend on writing it. My plan is to mention it and link to it in Quick Takes (running on Tuesday this week) and will likely mention Curt Varone’s Fire Law column on the topic.

      So, in short, rather than making a news judgment (this one is certainly worthy and should have run), I have to triage sometimes based on what time I have available to put into the blog.

      I hope that answers the question.