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Charlie LeDuff blew this one. But can his message about another Detroit Fire Department outrage still be right when his facts are wrong?

Fox 2 News Headlines

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Previous coverage of Charlie LeDuff

I’ve been following WJBK-TV reporter Charlie LeDuff’s reports for a number of years watching him try to hold three different fire commissioners and a mayor accountable for the dismal state of the Detroit Fire Department. His is an advocacy style of journalism that’s in your face. Very few TV reporters in the country are allowed to present stories in the manner LeDuff does.

One reason I like LeDuff’s reports is because they stand out from the blandness and cookie cutter reporting that plagues local TV news. His style is effective in getting attention to problems that might otherwise be ignored. Many of these problems have Charlie saying out loud what many viewers at home are saying, “How the hell can  that be?”. And the reports usually show Charlie chasing down those who have some responsibility for it being that way.

The Detroit Fire Department memo we published on Saturday that prohibits firefighters from climbing aerial ladders unless there is an immediate life threat to civilians or firefighters is an example of that type of story. It’s outrageous. All of us are asking how can it be that no one has made sure an entire fleet of 19 ladder trucks has been getting annual and five year ladder inspections? This outrage should be a slam dunk for LeDuff who has been trying to get to the bottom of failures at the maintenance shop, including inspections, for more than a year.

But from what I can see, Charlie blew this one. The facts just don’t support the premise of Charlie’s report. I can’t tell if it’s a reading comprehension issue after he looked at last week’s memo from Chief Craig Dougherty or if it was because Charlie was trying too hard to sensationalize a story that really doesn’t need to be sensationalized. 

Charlie LeDuff telling his viewers something that is blatantly false, that the Detroit Fire Department doesn’t have a ladder to get a person out if they became trapped in this top floor apartment. But does it matter that he’s wrong?

LeDuff spends much of this report talking to people about about how Detroit firefighters now can’t rescue anyone from upper floors. He shows various buildings where people will be out of luck. While one of those illustrations was a second or third floor apartment where most firefighters would throw a ground ladder anyway, Charlie is ignoring the fact the memo clearly states the aerial ladders can still be used for rescues. His report is very misleading and in some cases dead wrong.

Charlie could have worked his magic in so many other ways with a story like this. In ways that the facts support. He could have asked people whether they trust being brought down a ladder that the fire commissioner is telling firefighters not to climb unless absolutely necessary. He could have asked if operating master streams from these ladders puts people around the rigs in jeopardy. He could have asked, as the union president did, what else isn’t being inspected. And if he wanted to be more dramatic, the facts would probably justify asking citizens, “Would you rather take your chance with the fire or the ladder that might collapse underneath you?”

The question I have is for you. Does LeDuff’s handling of the facts of this story really matter? Does it undermine his credibity? Or does all that matters here, is the watchdog of the people once again showed that the city’s leaders screwed up, again, which they most certainly did?

I like to think that getting it right is important. That was important for me as a reporter. I also believe if you are going to put it all out there the way LeDuff does you better have it right. But my gut tells me I’m probably wrong. That, in the end, I will be the only one bringing this up, and most people will just say right on, Charlie.

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Comments - Add Yours

  • OldSutterOne

    Dave, you are correct this could have been reported better. So why didn’t he? Just a guess, he may have gotten too close to the story. When he’s blown off by the City and told essentially they don’t like him and that he “mocks” them, he got angry. In his “Now I Got You, You SOB” he’s getting back at them.

  • Dave

    I agree with you on this one Dave. If he is going to do this style of reporting, which I enjoy, he has got to be on top of the facts. I think you do lose a bit of credibility when you go this route and your facts are off. But is that only being caught by us, the people in the business. It is a good bet that a large number of the general population viewing his story will never grasp how wrong some of his info was. You mentioned the union president, and he is dead on with his question what else isn’t being tested. From what I have heard nothing gets tested. Not ground ladders, hose, mask fit, scba’s pumps, NOTHING!!! Charlie needs to get back on his horse and dig a little deeper and he will have a very compelling story that will once again shock the viewers with facts.

  • Weird

    “Start doing your job… and I’ll stop mocking you.” That sums it up just about right.

  • Bring It.

    Charlie needs to head to the DC Metro area. He would have a fulltime job between DCFD and the blatant incompetence in Fairfax. Come on Charlie we need you here or someone that has the courage to tell like it is about fire/ems issues. Granted Charlie may have duffed this story but the awareness he has drawn about the ineptitude of Detroit Fire has been invaluable for those guys on the job. Dave you have done similar for us here and we appreciate.

  • PPFD

    Personally, I think Charlie is smart enough and man enough to take correction if someone explained “ladders” to him.

    Yet it is journalism and sensationalism sells. So Charlie may know what he actually said is not correct.

    And the public he interviews are always up in arms, shocked, scared, etc. Yet nothing changes come election time.

  • Fire21

    It’s very easy to lose all credibility with your public when you don’t present truthful information. And don’t sell the public short…they know more about us than we like to believe. I think Charlie needs to readdress this story and give facts and apologies this time. But he was half true in what he did this time…the ladders are not inspected and are potentially useless in rescue situations. Go get em, Charlie, but make sure you’re on the right track!!

    Thanks, Dave, for this update on the story…I admire Charlie’s courage.

  • EngineBoss

    My take on it is simple… Ladder trucks have not gone through aerial testing, and therefore admin says no manned elevated streams, only life hazard rescues. Personally, seems like the admin is setting the men up for failure. Aerial testing doesn’t just qualify an aerial for placing lives on the stick, it qualifies the truck for operation. Hasn’t the boss heard of catastrophic aerial failures? Isn’t the point of testing to make sure it’s not only safe for life, but also just plain safe to operate? I’m sure climbing a ladder that may fail aerial testing puts a little uneasiness in not just the crew, but also the officer that sends a man up it.

    I’m also going to venture a guess that portable ladders aren’t getting tested either.

    Detroit needs money and fiscal management. Seems like they don’t use the money they have properly, and don’t have the money they need in several key areas.

    I think Leduff could have made a better approach, people probably think ladder trucks can reach you on the 30th floor of a building. I would have used the angle that the lack of certified equipment makes an already hard job even harder. Everyone here knows what I mean, buckets or sticks are easier to pick people than portables, provided you can get them to the places that the people are. Rescues with ladder trucks have their place, and yes not being able to use them makes certain grabs impossible, unless you do a rope rescue, and I don’t even know if they do them there.

    Whatever the take on the story, it definitely has opened some peoples eyes as to just what the heck is going on with the maintenance and safety issues of the equipment.

  • Working in the D

    Hi Dave, While Charlie was off the mark a little with his story hes right on that our equipment is in deplorable condition. Nothing get tested groud ladders, aerial ladders, fire pumps, hose nothing, There is no maintence plan no accountability and no leadership. Over a quarter of our frontline fleet is broken down and they are not getting fixed they sit and collect dust and you can only hope they dont start pulling useable parts off one truck to fix another.Mr LeDuff tells it like no other and thou sometimes hes way out in left field at least hes in the ball park. and he fighting for us the firefighters and E.M.S. in Detroit.

  • Chief 62

    I must have watched a different story clip than the rest Dave. I truly believe Mr. LeDuff’s portrayal was pretty well bang on and also he has knowledge of a whole lot more screwups going on in DFD, none of which are firefighter related!! If one takes the sum of the report and we the trained ones know the term “ladder trucks” really means the whole total, ground ladders are included, so then he is correct, if you want to get someone out from a second storey do their pumps even carry ladders. The most damaging part is how many inspection stickers on the existing ground ladders are valid and other commentary shows an awareness of what else is out of date, not checked or worthy of being in service, anything “other” than the actual staff!!.

    Everyday I am amazed at the dedication, resilience and committment the brothers and sisters in Motown demonstrate. While I sometimes chuckle at Charlie and his style, I truly believe he is an ardent supporter of the firefighter family and the Detroit Local is much better off as a result for the constant expose. For those of us whom have never had to operate this way and enjoy reasonable government making good decisions be thankful and take a little each day to pray for those in Detroit.Sometimes an adjustment in the way its asked might be more helpful for the lay public in grasping its the Dept. and the equipment not their firefighters at fault. Just Sayin. Stay Safe All. What a huge difference being on the north side of the Internatinal Bridge makes.

  • Engine 57

    If the trucks are so unreliable that the DFD guys and gals are not allowed on them, what makes them reliable for 1000 gpm going up the stick? Charlie might not be so off the mark…the trucks are functionally useless.

    Seriously cant figure out why the guys and gals from DFD go to work every day, to do what they do with so little support from the city. While the word “hero” is often overused what them members of DFD do every day is truly heroic!

  • Robert Kramer

    Unfortunately, people believe everything they see in every news story. They seem to not believe that reporters get facts wrong or deliberately report half truths or outright lies to make the “story” better.

    • dave statter

      Reporters all tell lies and firemen are all lazy and sit around doing nothing all day, right Robert?

  • Mark too

    Given the various comments I’ve read on this story on different sites, I think most people are overthinking this decision. I say this because I don’t think Chief Dougherty’s woke up one morning and suddenly realized that DFD’s aerials were out of inspection and that fact alone rendered them suddenly “unreliable”. I’d even go as far as saying that they were already known to be “unreliable” due to the maintenance issues they are having. So what changed?

    My suspicion is that this change is due at least in part to a conversation that Chief Dougherty had with myself and a friend of mine following a viewing of the “Burn” movie in our area last month. My friend works for an FD in a neighboring county to mine and was nearly killed a year ago in an aerial collapse while operating a master stream. He had just reached the tip and was about to “lock in” when the collapse occurred and he rode the ladder into the ground (about 40′). He was seriously injured, but has since returned to work (full-duty). The aerial was close to 40 years old and it’s ladder inspection had run out a few months prior. It wasn’t renewed because they were expecting delivery of a new aerial unit (via AFG grant) shortly after that date and money was an issue for the municipality. Due to production delays, the aerial was delivered a couple weeks after the accident.

    Chief Dougherty appeared to be very interested in what had happened and it’s my suspicion that the decision to limit manned operations on his department’s aerial units that haven’t been inspected and the long history of maintenance issues was largely a matter of not wanting to see one of his men take a similar ride and be seriously injured or killed.

    Oftentimes we don’t think too much about the things we do if nothing is going wrong. Sometimes it takes that “wake up call”, even if it happens to somebody else, to realize maybe we should rethink what we previously thought wasn’t a “concern”?