Where’s DC’s fire chief & why were the accused firefighters still riding fire trucks?

More DC coverage: Background checks are another priority Dennis Rubin warned Kenneth Ellerbe about

Previous coverage of this story here & here

The latest version of what may have happened when a woman desperately tried to get firefighters to cross the street to help her dying father may be the most astounding thing we’ve heard so far. WJLA-TV/ABC 7 reporter Jay Korff claims in his report above from 11:00 last night (above) that sources tell him word was sent back from the officer in charge that those seeking help at the firehouse would have to call 911 instead.

There are a lot of different versions out there of what happened this past Saturday in the 1300 block of Rhode Island Avenue, Northeast. The information is leaking out little by little and has made news every day since WTTG-TV/ Fox 5 reporter Paul Wagner broke the story on Monday. In the fourth day of coverage it’s at the top of the Washington Post website’s home page (story here). I’ve also seen it carried on news websites across the country. If it hasn’t happened already, I expect a cable network or two to jump on this outrageous story.

Instead of handling this like professional managers should deal with bad news, Chief Kenneth Ellerbe, Deputy Mayor Paul Quander and Mayor Vincent Gray are showing us once again what rank amateurs they are in dealing with a crisis. Pay attention, there are lessons to learn from this trio.

Getting the bad news out and behind you as soon as possible is not a new concept in reputation management. But Ellerbe, Quander and Gray have been consistent for the past three years with what seems to be a policy that is the complete opposite of this concept. They have shown in almost every crisis that they believe the best tactic is to hide, delay, provide half answers and let the bad news come out little by little.

DC Ellerbe, Quander and Gray
If any of these three guys want to give you advise on handling a reputation issue, run the other way.

According to Marie Mills, whose father Medric “Cecil” Mills died, she knows Chief Ellerbe well enough to have called him Saturday about this incident. If, as reported, the fire chief knew about these allegations on the day they occurred, aren’t the fire chief’s bosses wondering why the chief didn’t  take this crew out of public contact status right away and try to get some answers immediately?

Isn’t anyone in charge in DC as astonished as Marie Mills that at least part of that same crew was back riding a fire truck the very next shift (yesterday). I know I was.

How do we know this about the crew? We know it because reporter Wagner was waiting for the firefighters as they rode Truck 15 to and from headquarters yesterday to be interviewed by those investigating this horrible incident.

So what is it? Did Chief Ellerbe think the allegations that have “outraged” Mayor Gray weren’t serious or credible enough to warrant what is standard operating procedure in most places (and has been in the past in DC)? Not taking this crew off the street Saturday until it can be sorted out says to the public, and Ms. Mills, this isn’t all that serious of a situation.

Leaders that care about things like transparency, doing the right thing and the image of the agency or city they lead don’t let a claim this shocking drag on in the news for four days (and getting close to six full days since the incident occurred).

Smart, effective leadership would have immediately taken the crew out of the firehouse and done enough fact finding to have clear answers even before a reporter started asking questions on Monday.

In addition, Chief Ellerbe, the man in charge, should have been out front from day one providing detailed answers and assuring the public this incident is not how his agency does business. Covering the department from 1982 to 2010, I’ve reported on some really, really ugly situations. But I have no problem stating emphatically that refusing to provide aid in this fashion is unheard of in the DC Fire and EMS Department. Why hasn’t Chief Ellerbe looked into the TV cameras and said those words (along with explaining what did go wrong)? Why hasn’t he told us the men and women he leads don’t operate this way?

I am sure some of you are saying I am wrong, that the Chief needs time to do a thorough investigation. This isn’t complicated folks. There were five people in that firehouse, including a rookie. Competent leadership could have found out over the weekend enough about why the crew didn’t respond to the plea for help to give answers to the public when Wagner started asking questions on Monday.

But we can’t blame it all on Chief Ellerbe. There is another agency involved in this story. That’s the Office of Unified Communications (OUC – DC’s 911 center), As some were trying unsuccessfully to get help from the firehouse across the street at least one call was made to 911. For some reason the responding units went 26 blocks away to the wrong quadrant of the city. Who made this error? Was it the call taker, the responding crews or the person who called 911?

The recording of the calls at OUC make that an easy one to answer almost instantly. So why haven’t the OUC leadership and Deputy Mayor Paul Quander provided clarity for reporters and the public?

The answer to that question is quite simple. Doing so would go against their policy of making sure bad news gets maximum exposure over as many days as possible. Let’s see how long they can stretch this one.