Read Rhetorical Lesson No.8:
If We Did it 100 Years Ago, Is it Still Okay?
by Bill Carey at BackstepFirefighter.com
The always thoughtful and thought provoking Bill Carey at BackstepFirefighter.com spotted the story above from Elmont, New York. It is about a mishap Tuesday night during training by the Elmont Fire Department's motorized drill team in preparation for a Labor Day weekend competition. The teams are an activity with a long tradition on Long Island. They have come under scrutiny in more recent years, including in the lengthy and controversial investigation Newsday did on the fire departments of Long Island in late 2005 (FirePIO.com looked at the drill team issue last year).
Bill asks questions about the relevance of the teams in today's tight budgets and the potential impact and fallout from the injuries to three firefighters. One firefighter is recovering from what was described as a serious head injury.
I have a couple other thoughts about this TV news story. First is that the leadership of the Elmont Fire Department apparently learned something about dealing with bad news after it's last turn in the spotlight on WNBC-TV in New York (click here). That was a story at the beginning of this year when a reporter wanted to know more about what appeared to be a Confederate flag inside the firehouse. The TV station reported that a fire commissioner threatened the reporter who was asking questions about the flag and there is also video of firefighters closing the bay door on the reporter.
Both were bad moves for Elmont. They stretched a one day story into multiple days and the department didn't look good in the process. And for what purpose? They ended up getting rid of the flag anyway. As I have pointed out many times, if you have a defensible position, by all means defend it and don't run from it. If you can't defend it, correct the problem, address it with the media immediately and get it behind you.
This time it appears Elmont didn't run from Channel 4. They talked about the wreck, the injuries and gave a defense of their drill teams (though, if the department really believes in drill teams they need to say something stronger than it is tradition).
In the same story, the reporter and camera crew show up, apparently unannounced, at a similar drill team practice by the Hempstead Fire Department. Instead of using this as an opportunity to explain what they do and why they do it and the value for the fire department and the community the leadership sees in this activity, they basically run and hide. When they can't chase the TV crew away, they cancel the practice, pack up and go home.
I will let others pass judgment on whether this is a tradition that should still be a part of today's fire service. I am going to pass judgment and offer some unsolicited advice to the firefighters of Long Island from an image and public relations standpoint.
What I have to say isn't very complicated, but is often missed by those in a position of leadership when they are angry and defensive about those nasty reporters breathing down their necks. Here's my message to the firefighters of Long Island:
If this is an activity you strongly believe in and can justify, by all means you should get out there and defend it vigorously. Maybe even mount your own PR campaign explaining why this is important. Sure, you will still take some hits in news coverage and from your critics. But you look much, much worse when you run and hide from legitimate questions about your activities. If the leadership of a fire department or other public agency can't effectively articulate why they do what they do, maybe it's time to stop doing it and change course.