Some background from Dave
On the morning of July 2, 2009 I was tuned in to the most listened to radio station in the Nation’s Capital when the city’s fire chief told an interviewer that some of my reporting on a major news story was not true. Something like that gets the attention of a reporter.
While I was taken by surprise, like most people in the news business, it’s something I’ve dealt with before in my career. I did what I always did when such a claim was made. I rechecked the facts and tried to do as honest an evaluation as possible to see if I was being fair to all involved. The next day I posted all the details as I knew them, including the chief’s comments and an on the record statement from the fire department PIO, who also heard the broadcast. The spokesman directly contradicted his boss.
Now, more than three-years later, the same chief has written his own column about the news media and that same incident. In it, the chief now verifies most of what his PIO said and what I reported, in direct contrast to his words in 2009.
I fully expect some will accuse me of trying to settle an old score and others will find this absolutely boring. But I think it’s important to my credibility to once again place the facts as I know them before you and let you be the judge. It should also give you insight into how sometimes decisions are made about public information during a crisis, based not on good policy, but on a political leader’s ego.
The chief’s new column
Dennis Rubin, the former DC Fire & EMS Department chief, posted an article on FireEngineering.com Wednesday about managing the flow of information at large-scale emergency incidents. It relates his experience with the press at the crash of two Metro trains on June 22, 2009 that left nine people dead and scores injured. Chief Rubin wrote that two important lessons were learned:
1. Keep providing the information to the media, even if it is “stale” and already discussed items. Shutting the “news tap” off altogether is never a good idea.
2. The local media felt shut out when the national folks arrived (typically from their parent companies). I should have made extra efforts to include the local folks in every aspect of the media presentations. Remember that when the national and international press go home, you are left with the media locals, and they are always watching your department. Adding the local folks to a discussion wouldn’t have taken anything away from the reports and would have allowed the hometown media to feel a part of everything.
You will get no argument from me about keeping the information flowing and taking care of the local news media. I also made those exact points on the very day Chief Rubin’s column was posted while leading a class for a group of visiting officials from Southeast Asia. The topic was handling the press during critical incidents. In fact, I used the Metro crash as an example of how not to do deal with the news media. The incident has been a part of my presentations around the country during the last two years.
Better late than never
I need to thank Chief Rubin for writing this column. For the first time, in a very public way, he has acknowledged that some of what he said about me, my blog and his own public information officer 11 days after the crash was wrong.
In his column, Rubin now confirms that an anticipated press conference by Mayor Adrian Fenty completely stopped the information flow in the second hour of this developing incident. This, despite the public being hungry for details due to much of the region’s transit system shut down at rush hour and many people worried about the fate of their loved ones.
Chief Rubin also now admits it was wrong for the mayor and chief to provide interviews and information to CNN’s Larry King and national fire/EMS publications without also taking care of the local news media.
Above, Chief Dennis Rubin on WTOP Radio, July 2, 2009.
What Statter reported & the chief said in 2009
I also had many discussions about these concerns with the DC Fire & EMS Department’s media team of Deputy Chief Kenneth Crosswhite, Billy D. Hayes and Alan Etter and left a message on the chief’s cell phone. All of them heard an earful from me that Rubin and his command staff talked about the handling of the incident with FirefighterNation.com/ Fire Rescue Magazine, Firehouse.com, FireRescue1.com and JEMS.com, but were under orders to turn down interview requests with local reporters.
Rubin went on radio and TV July 2, 2009 to say what I published wasn’t true. He told WTOP Radio’s Mark Segraves, “I don’t think that information ever shut down. At least I am going to say that.”
Here’s more of what Chief Rubin said on WTOP:
I know Mr. Statter had described that fact and that just simply isn’t true. The other side of it is, though, if we were to shoot from the hip, I think instead of being here today saying why did it take a bit to learn the number of folks, to have some notion as to what occurred here. Instead of that, I think we would be under the gun, why did you give us such inaccurate information?
I know there were some comments made about the number of cell telephone calls that were made. I never received a one from Mr. Statter and I know he is the person that’s complaining the most. But I would have to give us a very high mark, that of course is, the mayor’s management consequence team that worked at that event providing accurate timely and effective information.
Rubin now admits there was a 45-minute gap in the flow of information and that it was done because “the mayor’s office directed the fire department PIO team to prepare for a mayoral press conference.” If you look back at my reporting you will see I also wrote the order came from Mayor Adrian Fenty’s office but that the gap was about 70-minutes long.
We’re getting closer. Our only disagreement now is
1525-minutes and some specific instructions with that order.
Above, Chief Dennis Rubin with WUSA-TV photojournalist Keith Williams, July 2, 2009.
I reported the mayor’s office said there were to be no further interviews at the scene until Mayor Fenty speaks. Rubin said that was not correct and told my Channel 9 colleague Keith Williams right after the WTOP Radio appearance, “There were no restrictions or controls placed on fire and EMS by anyone.”
But Rubin’s own PIO at the time, Alan Etter, who was in the process of leaving the department, contradicted the chief. Here’s what I reported:
Etter confirmed, on the record, that it was accurate. Etter said at about 6:10 PM, 70-minutes after the crash was reported, he received a page from Mayor Adrian Fenty’s press office ordering that he give no further interviews about the collision. According to Etter, the page indicated Mayor Fenty would be speaking at 7:15 PM.
Until that page came Etter had worked very hard in making sure the local news media and the public were being informed about this important story. Then suddenly there was a news blackout along with later orders not to upstage the mayor with local interviews in the days following the crash.
The mayor and the fire chief talking with the press at the Metro crash scene from WashingtonPost.com.
For the record, we have never indicated the stopping of the information flow came on orders of Chief Rubin. It wasn’t his style of handling information at or following a major incident. But it certainly was the style of his boss, Mayor Fenty. The Washington Post made note of that two days after the Metro crash in an article by reporter Nikita Stewart titled, “D.C. Mayor Tries Too Hard to Control the Message, Critics Say“.
In the old STATter911.com articles you will see there were other missteps in handling the media that day, including a bit of a heavy hand from the police department.
It’s sad that any of this even became an issue, because it distracted from the expert job Chief Rubin and the men and women of the department did that day in handling a very high profile and difficult mass casualty incident.
And a final word
When you read Chief Rubin’s article, which I urge you to do, you may note he has the Metro crash occurring a week after the date I am using. For the record, June 22, 2009 is accurate.
I can tell you even a small error involving details of a rail incident is very uncharacteristic of Dennis Rubin. During a panel discussion we both participated in at the National Fire Academy a number of years ago I just happened to mention the 1987 Chase, Maryland Amtrak collision. Off the top of his head he rattled off all of the pertinent facts and figures of that incident, including the exact date. Quite impressive. I believe Chief Rubin told me his dad was a railroad man.
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