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There’s little doubt their intentions were good. Detroit firefighters, commemorating the retirement of a battalion chief, posed for a picture in front of a burning unoccupied home. The impact of that photo is still being felt four days after it was posted and will likely continue to reverberate–not just in Detroit–but around the world. It’s not a good day when the image of the Detroit Fire Department and all firefighters is being severely damaged at the speed of light (a nod to my friend Gerald Baron).
There have been hundreds of articles about this photo posted on mainstream media sites as far away as New Zealand since New Year’s Eve. It has become a 21st Century version of Nero fiddling while Rome burns. In this case, it’s firefighters posing while Detroit burns, leaving the impression firefighters are more interested in a group picture than putting out the fire. Those who understand the policies of the Detroit Fire Department know that’s not likely what occurred.
While Detroit Fire Commissioner Eric Jones immediately made clear his unhappiness with the photo, I’ve seen no clarity from Detroit officials on the department’s “let it burn” policy. It’s likely the decision was made to write off this home and let it burn to the ground, protecting exposures. It’s a tactic/policy DFD has been using for years. The combination of the image speaking louder than any policy, Detroit Fire Department’s lack of clarity and news organizations–particularly outside Detroit–not understanding local issues, has made this much worse than the reality of what occurred.
Speaking of reality, how can any of us truly expect the public–upon seeing this picture–not to wonder why firefighters are posing instead of putting out the fire? Even an explanation of the policy–in this era of people only looking at the photos, videos and headlines coming across their smartphones–wouldn’t likely have prevented this debacle. Few are interested in the details.
To make matters worse, the family of the woman who owns the house is speaking out, claiming the home was not abandoned like so many Detroit properties. To further illustrate how much attention the photo is getting, this aspect of the story was not reported first by any Detroit News organization. It’s from reporters Laura Italiano and Amanda Woods at the New York Post:
“Everybody is furious,” Deonte Higginbotham, 21, told The Post of the brick home that’s been in his family for 50 years.
“They just let it burn to the ground … Eighteen men and none of them did anything,” he added of the firefighters in the tasteless selfie. “All of them need to be fired.”
n fact, the only reason Higginbotham and his mother, Dorothy, weren’t there on New Year’s Eve was that the family had been renovating the house, he said.
Higginbotham still lived there with Dorothy, 70 — who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, he said.
The Post article even quotes FDNY firefighters who say this wouldn’t happen in New York.
As you can imagine, there have been lots of firefighters defending this photo on social media. I’ve interacted with many–as I have in the past–trying to make them understand that a fire department’s image is much more important than their fireground trophy photo. I’ve been told I don’t understand brotherhood or what it’s like to be a big city firefighter. And I tell them they don’t understand how quickly this can turn bad, reminding them not to lose sight of another Michigan fireground picture. It was a smiling selfie in Kalamazoo last April. Only after it was taken and posted were the bodies of two people found in the rubble of the structure. Anyone think that couldn’t happen in this or any other Detroit fire where firefighters are taking pictures of themselves?
After the Kalamazoo incident, I urged every fire department to have a clear policy forbidding posing for pictures on the fireground. Less than a week later, some firefighters made news for their pictures at a large Jersey Shore fire. I caught grief from some for my sarcasm as I pointed out the Jersey firefighters were violating my recent STATter911 general order.
Despite it’s significant negative impact, I’m not one who wants to see anyone disciplined for the Detroit photo. Yes, it was stupid and short-sighted, but the intent was not malicious. Instead, I hope three things happen. First, Detroit Fire Department brass needs to clearly explain its policy on allowing some structures to burn and confirm whether that was the case at this fire. Second, the commissioner needs to make sure every Detroit firefighter knows this can’t happen again. Third, firefighters everywhere must finally learn that you don’t pose for pictures on the fireground. Period.
None of this is likely to be highly effective damage control at this point, but it may stop some of the bleeding and prevent some future self-inflicted fire service wounds.