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The failure of an engine from the Liberty Road Volunteer Fire Company in Baltimore County, Maryland to respond on a house fire assignment Monday prompted TV news coverage yesterday (Tuesday). The report from WMAR-TV has me identifying two additional failures — one by the reporter and the other by the director of public affairs for the Baltimore County Fire Department.
At the very end of his story reporter Jeff Hager cited a statistic provided by a former board member of the fire company, Tyrone Keys:
He adds in the last quarter of last year, the fire engines failed to respond to more than 78% of their calls—-odds no one should be willing to accept when there’s an active fire.
In the news business that’s called burying the lead. A fire company that can’t get out the door on more than three-quarters of its calls in a three-month period is the most interesting fact in the entire report. It’s not an “Oh, by the way.”
Smart readers are yelling at their screen right now, “But Dave that damning stat is not verified by anyone other than the former board member.”
And Dave won’t argue with you. If it isn’t verified by the reporter it shouldn’t be part of the story. If its confirmed, you lead with it.
Then there is the soundbite from Elise Armacost, the PIO for the Baltimore County Fire Department:
“You’re dealing with men and women who are doing this as volunteers and it’s a tricky business, because you depend on them, but they are volunteers,” said Armacost, “They’re not paid. They don’t have to be there.”
Sorry, but the county government making excuses is not the message I’d want to get across to the citizens along the Liberty Road corridor who are learning that a neighbor’s home burned down at a time when the closest fire engine wasn’t staffed. A much better soundbite would be, “This isn’t acceptable and we will be working with the leadership of the volunteer fire company to immediately fix this situation.”
When you add the claims by the former board member that the captain of the station has been “suspended for safety violations” and the fire company has sent “unqualified people without the proper equipment into dangerous situations” something is very wrong in the messaging from the Baltimore County government.
There are really only two responsible ways for a PIO to address a story like this. If the report is wrong or greatly blown out of proportion, strongly defend the fire company with the correct facts and related information. If that’s not the case, excusing the inexcusable will not win the day or the confidence of those you serve. Show leadership and explain how the fire department will address these shortcomings and provide something a lot better than a one in four chance the local fire company will respond to an emergency.