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Reputation mismanagement: Bad news keeps happening at Polk County Fire Rescue

Paramedic resigns over on-duty social media use

Department photo of Polk County Fire Rescue Chief Tony Stravino

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The resignation yesterday (Monday) of a probationary paramedic over on-duty social media posts is the latest in a string of negative news stories to hit Florida’s Polk County Fire Rescue in a little more than five weeks. Below, you will find a recap of the significant stories and scandals featuring the department since February 8. That’s the day when the first story about problems at a November 23 house fire made news. The story was immediately followed by the publication of the entire 911 call and radio traffic, making it very clear there were significant issues to be dealt with.

Polk County Fire Rescue had experience with a major scandal. The department made headlines around the country in 2013 with the firing of a battalion chief and two medical supervisors for having on-duty sex and a deputy chief disciplined for sending and receiving inappropriate text messages. That problem was handled by Chief David Cash. This flood of negative news comes under the supervision of Chief Tony Stravino.

Chief Stravino set the tone on managing–or mismanaging–this news with that awful February 13 press conference. That’s where Stravino and deputy county manager Joe Halman defended the actions and abilities of Capt. James Williams, the first arriving officer at the November house fire. Halman and Stravino did this even though the department had an internal report written in December sharply criticizing fireground actions by Williams. That report also contradicted many things the two men told reporters. And, in the clip above from The Ledger, you will see Stravino and Halman even contradicted each other.

It was obvious to reporters and many who watched the press conference that Stravino and Halman were not being candid. In addition, the men were unprepared for tough questions, lacking important details about a fire that occurred 12 weeks earlier and an investigation completed more than three weeks prior to the press conference.

A reporter who sees officials being defensive, instead of candid, is going to dig deeper. During that digging, which will include talking to various sources within the organization, reporters will likely find the truth and possibly other negative stories. That’s exactly  what happened to Polk County Fire Rescue. Look at the list below and see how much of it came from failing to deal with the November 23 house fire debacle decisively.

So, what should Polk County officials have done differently? Here’s advice I gave February 12, the day before the press conference, and think how many news stories could have been prevented. Keep in mind I gave this advice not even knowing Polk County already had a completed internal report laying out many of the errors from November 23.

  • Top officials need to make clear to Loretta Pickard’s family and the public that many of the things we hear on these recordings should not have occurred in the manner that they occurred and that other actions could have been taken to attempt the rescue of Ms. Pickard.
  • Apologize to the Pickard family and to the citizens you serve for this poor and tragic performance by your emergency services.
  • Make the clarifications in your general orders, SOPs, SOGs and training needed to immediately deal with the extremely obvious problems with both 911 and fire suppression.
  • Engage key fire service and 911 experts from outside Polk County to provide a report on everything that went wrong, why these things occurred and to create a blueprint to make lasting improvements to 911, fire and EMS.

Sadly, Polk County has become a textbook case in reputation mismanagement with a step-by-step lesson in how not to handle bad news.

February 8: News report about November 23 house fire where 76-year-old Lorretta Pickard died reveals Capt. James Williams, the initial incident commander, was suspended for 24 hours after posting video to Snapchat from the fire. On the same day there’s a news story about a Polk County fire fee increase.

February 9: News reports point out even though Lorretta Pickard was talking on the phone to 911 for a full five minutes after firefighters arrived on the scene, Capt. Williams and his did not enter the home to attempt a rescue.

February 13: Polk county’s fire chief and deputy county manager hold press conference defending the decisions and actions of Capt. Williams.

February 14: County manager orders outside investigation of the house fire, initially saying the Florida Fire Chief’s Association would conduct investigation. Association says it can’t do the investigation.

February 14: News report about previous on-duty use of social media by Capt. Williams.

February 18: News report says there is a severe firefighter shortage with 80 to 100 vacancies putting strain on the overtime budget.

February 26: Report reveals a December internal report on the fatal fire that shows much of the information the fire chief and deputy county manager shared about the fire and Capt. Williams during the press conference was not accurate.

February 28: Union questions overtime pay for battalion chief attending paramedic school.

March 6: Battalion chief in paramedic class is accused of cheating.

March 12: Capt. James Williams resigns over social media investigation.

March 14: Investigation file about Capt. James Williams is released.

March 18: Probationary paramedic resigns over on-duty social media use.

Fire Chief Anthony “Tony” Stravino of Polk County Fire Rescue completed the process that awards him the professional…

Posted by Polk County Fire Rescue on Monday, August 21, 2017

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