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Charlie shows & so does the commissioner. Girl dies in Detroit house fire & there are lots of questions about the fire department response.

Previous story from FireTruckBlog.com

Glenn Usdin's FireTruckBlog.com told us Tuesday about a non-pumping mini-pumper being the first to arrive at a burning Detroit home with a little girl trapped. Three-year-old Ivory Ivey died yesterday after being rescued by firefighters. But WJBK-TV reports the crew from Engine 46, forced to use the small TAC unit because its rig has been down for two weeks, had no water or ladder to assist them in their initial efforts to rescue the little girl. The pump on the TAC unit had been disabled because training on the unit had not been completed. Engine 46 was apparently second due. The first due, Engine 41, was also out of service for maintenance, according to the TV station.

We wondered yesterday morning why reporter Charlie LeDuff wasn't on the case and why there was no response from the Detroit Fire Department to Tuesday's TV story. But LeDuff took over the story on Wednesday and presented it with his usual blunt and direct advocacy type of journalism. Commissioner Donald Austin, who was said to be in meetings Tuesday, went before the cameras with a response on Wednesday, a day after the fire.

Of course, in addition to the tragic death of a child, the big issue here is the poor state of Detroit's fleet and the lack of reserve apparatus that forces the city to use TAC units and pickup trucks to get on-duty firefighters to emergencies. It does not appear Commissioner Austin can just wave a magic wand and fix that problem. The commissioner believes the system worked the way it should considering the cards they have been dealt. From WJBK-TV:

"I believe to the bottom of my heart everything worked as it should," said Detroit Fire Commissioner Don Austin. "Instead of shutting that company down because their apparatus was getting warranty work, our decision was let's keep the manpower available."

"The problem with what happens is something that's been systematic in this fire department for decades. We don't have enough gear. We don't have enough rigs. It isn't the firefighter. The firefighter when we get there, we do everything humanly possible. But when we can't get there or we get there without the tools we need, there's not much we can do," said Dan McNamara, president of Detroit's firefighter union.

The honeymoon appears to be over for the commissioner. If the apparatus situation is not likely to change soon (there was a recent budget cut from the City Council), Commissioner Austin needs to put some effort on a response system to quickly address the stories from LeDuff and others that will follow. If not, he could end up like previous commissioners who found themselves on the bad end of LeDuff's stories night after night.

As I've said before, open the books, be transparent, don't make excuses for the inexcusable and get the bad news out quickly. It isn't Commissioner Austin's fault that Detroit doesn't have working fire engines, but it will soon look like it if he doesn't get out in front of these stories. That means being there the first day reporters are asking questions. 

Why give reporters like LeDuff the upper hand so they can tell their viewers they've "uncovered" some scandal? Take the offense. Tell them yourself. A story like this is going to come out anyway.

I imagine with what the firefighters and the people of Detroit have been through all these years they know enough not to expect a new commissioner is going to be a miracle worker who will suddenly cure what's ailing the fire department. But having a commissioner who changes how the commissioner's office and the fire department is perceived nightly on the news would be an enormous step in the right direction.

While Donald Austin has shown signs in his early interviews that he can be that kind of leader, I only give him a C for his reaction to this story (still a great, great improvement over the failing grades of previous commissioners who would still be running from LeDuff). Probably the more important question is will Commissioner Austin's bosses let him be that different kind of leader? Watch this space.

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