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Baltimore fire captain suspended & transferred over TV interview

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Previous coverage of this story here & here

Here’s a lesson in how to make a bad situation worse. The one person since the weekend to speak clearly and honestly about an indefensible and rather ridiculous situation is the person who is now taking the fall for the bad publicity the Baltimore City Fire Department has received in recent days.

That man is Captain John Parker, who until yesterday (Wednesday), was assigned to Engine 31. According to the Baltimore Sun, Captain Parker has been suspended and transferred for telling the truth to TV reporters about what happened during a working rowhouse fire Friday night.

The situation revolves around the department’s new AVL/GPS based dispatch protocol. It’s part of an effort to actually send the closest units to emergencies. That’s an admirable goal and makes perfect sense. But contrary to the assignment spit out by the computer aided dispatch for that fire Friday on Chilton Street, Engine 31 was actually the closest engine.

Unfortunately, when Engine 31 called in by radio to say they can see the fire and now have the hydrant in front of the burning home, everyone seemed to lose their minds. They conveniently forgot about the goal of getting the closest firefighters to the fire. Both the dispatcher and the responding battalion chief, operating on a flawed department order that ran counter to the idea of sending the closest units to the call, lost all common sense. Each ordered Engine 31 to pack up their toys and go home.

There will be brass from fire departments and 911 centers around the country that will tell me I’m not looking at the bigger picture and that there are reasons to keep order and to stop fire company officers from bidding on calls. All that may be somewhat true, but it ignores some very important points.

First of all, no matter how many rules the crew from Engine 31 may have broken to get to the scene, you just don’t tell the first arriving engine company at a working fire to go home. You deal with those issues after the fire is out. Sorry, this was THE sin of that incident. That’s a far bigger problem and potentially much more harmful than a fire captain telling the truth on TV.

Second, let’s be honest about the initial department order (see it here) that told company officers they weren’t allowed to call in to say they were closer to a response. That order worked squarely against the goal of city officials trying to reduce response times by sending whoever is closest to the run. That order has now been modified (see it here).

My educated guess is that part of the order was really about protecting a dispatch center or a computer system really not up to the challenge of adapting to changing conditions.

Back before there were even such things as computer aided dispatch systems, I actually had a little first hand experience dealing with these type of situations. If a company officer called on the radio that they were closer to the response, they would likely tell me their location or I would ask. Armed with personal knowledge of the jurisdiction where I worked and using just a wee bit of critical thinking that took in a variety of information, a quick decision would be made whether to send that unit. More often than not, the answer was yes, by all means, take that response.

The problem is that today, in many dispatch centers, critical thinking and knowledge of the jurisdiction are not necessarily the job skills those in charge nurture and encourage. I can’t speak specifically about Baltimore, but around the country I hear constantly from people who work at 911 centers where they are told to just do what the computer says. Thinking is actually what they don’t want from you.

That brings us back to that computer and the fancy new dispatch system that’s supposed to calculate automatically – in real time – the closest fire trucks and ambulances to the call. After the dispatch sequence is determined and sent, if the system really can’t (or those in charge won’t let it) adapt to new information – such as a unit suddenly going in service from another call – what good is it? I could do better than that 40-years-ago just using the computer between my ears.

And while we are at it, what good comes from punishing the one person brave enough to explain to the citizens there was a real problem that impacted the efficient delivery of a vital city service and, in turn, the safety of the public?

Personally, I hope those in charge in Baltimore will see that this embarrassing situation was bound to happen as soon as that flawed initial order was put in place. My suggestion is that everyone should learn from this episode, adapt and move on. Making it worse by punishing the one person in the organization willing to publicly admit those mistakes to the people you serve is not a good look for the Baltimore City Fire Department.

Luke Broadwater & Colin Campbell, The Baltimore Sun:

A Baltimore Fire captain was suspended and transferred from his post on Wednesday after giving a television interview about his engine being directed away from the scene of a house fire on Friday, a department spokesman said.

Capt. John Parker, of Engine 31, which is housed in the 3100 block of Greenmount Avenue in Waverly, was transferred to Engine 6 in Oldtown, according to an internal Fire Department document obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

Chief Roman Clark, the department’s spokesman, confirmed the disciplinary move Wednesday.

“Captain Parker was charged with [violating] one of the Fire Department rules and regulations that does not allow members of the department to give interviews about the business of the department without prior approval of the Chief of Fire Department,” Clark said in an emailed statement.

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