BY RICHARD MARINUCCI
Every once in awhile, a resident who claims to be an expert in the field challenges the fire department. The complaint is often in regard to an emergency response of some type, usually a fire. The expert often is a retired fire “professional” (so-called or self-anointed), a firefighter from a different department, or someone who knows a firefighter. This can be frustrating to a fire department or a chief, as the “expert” uses his experience, which is usually limited, to question the fire department’s actions. Somehow, the individual gains the ear of someone who may be a politician or policy maker and proceeds to claim that the fire department did not perform as would be expected.
Rarely do firefighters who have the knowledge or experience in emergency response question the actions of another department in public; they know that actions taken at the scene of the emergency are based on what is presented and the need to take quick action. Mostly, those that publicly take sides against a department have an ax to grind or are drawn in by a friend or relative. Someone watching the fire department attack the fire might not like the strategy and tactics used and might make a comment that someone else hears. That is interpreted to mean that the fire department’s operations were not the best and creates an opportunity to find blame.
This is not to imply that all emergencies are handled flawlessly. In my 32 years in the business, I have been to a few that I would have liked to do over. Knowing that, I understand the pressures of making quick decisions using the resources available and the circumstances presented. I wish that all my incidents were classic in their tactics and strategy. However, I know that we can always get better, and the challenges at each incident are unique. Knowing these challenges makes the “attacks” by so-called fire “experts” frustrating and aggravating. Regardless, they create a potential problem with political issues that can appear on your desk. You need to accept that this may happen and be prepared.
Your department responded to a serious fire. The first-arriving units found fire showing from every window of the second floor of a two-story, single-family dwelling. Initial reports were that everyone was out of the dwelling, and your intelligence and experience led you to believe this was the case. First-arriving units established a water supply and stretched the appropriate lines to attack the fire. An offensive attack was initiated, and units gained access to the structure. The deployment was not especially slow but was not as good as you would have liked. Your response could be viewed as average. The fire was brought under control within 20 minutes. No one was injured, and everything appeared normal.
The next day your boss calls to say there’s a complaint. It seems that the homeowner was unhappy with the outcome, as the family lost many of its belongings. The homeowner did not believe that the fire department was efficient and effective in its operations and wants an investigation to determine if the department did a good job.
Up to this point, there does not seem to be an issue. People have a right to question what occurred and understand how things turned out the way they did. In this case, the residents (and taxpayers) do not think that the fire was attacked appropriately, and they want to know why. Further, the homeowner’s cousin is a firefighter in a neighboring department and happened to be at the fire. He voiced the opinion that he thought your department was incompetent at this incident. Because this individual has “expert” status with the owners, he has instant credibility. Further, the owners know a member of your city council and are using this knowledge to question your operation.
Obviously, your credibility and expertise are in question. The things you have done in establishing your reputation can either help or hurt in this circumstance. If you have done what you can to establish yourself as a real expert, especially in your community, your opinions will have significant weight. Even still, the outside “expert” always muddies the water if someone else wants to give him more credit than he most likely deserves. It often becomes an issue of your credibility vs. the “expert’s.” If you have worked hard and have the confidence of those in your community, you will have the upper hand.
This is important to remember: The things you do every day help to establish your reputation and credibility. This is part of your job responsibility. If you can stack your resume against others’ resumes, you have the ability to gain the upper hand and get your side of the story heard first and with more believability. Your locality’s perception of your expertise is critical when dealing with outside “experts” who have an issue with your organization’s performance. Although you always strive to take the high road, you may need to discredit the credentials of the other side. The better your credentials, the more likely you are to be successful. The lesson here is to continue to develop your capabilities and make sure that your bosses know that you have a high level of competence.
Regardless of the source of the complaint, you need to investigate and report on all complaints. If you receive a complaint such as this, conduct a thorough review and honestly report your findings. Gather all information on the incident. This would include the incident report, any photos you may have, and members’ personal accounts. As a side note, departments that have in-vehicle cameras that capture video on arrival have found this visual report very effective in establishing the facts as they occurred.
Take the initiative to schedule a meeting with the affected parties. Once you have your facts, prepare a presentation based on these facts. Visuals are very effective. Tell it like it is; do not distort anything. You most likely can stand on the merits of the emergency. You need a solid understanding of what took place. If you were not on the scene, include your incident commander in the meeting. Make sure you have prepared your officer for the meeting. He may not have much experience in dealing with the public or being questioned regarding his tactics and strategy. Coach the officer as to what to expect and how to best answer questions. This does not mean that you make up answers or script the program. It is more about being prepared and presenting yourself and your officer as professionals.
This preparation will help to make your presentation factual and not emotional or defensive. You do not want to appear that you are “covering up” anything. A polished and professional presentation will help. You will need to anticipate questions and not get rattled no matter what may be asked. Cool and calm will gain you points. Your honesty and preparation are your best tools. If there were some things that could have gone better, don’t be afraid to say so. When doing so, make sure you mention that emergencies are stressful and require split-second decisions. The decisions are made with the information presented at the time along with the resources available.
It is difficult to defend your department’s actions without attacking the “expert.” However, stick to the facts, and avoid a direct confrontation on the credentials of the fire specialist. Your credentials and the professional nature with which you handle the incident will be your best approach. Remember that every day you are building your reputation. This is important as you build trust and respectnot only for you but also for your organization.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department, Previously, he was chief in Farmington Hills, MI. He was president of the IAFC (1997/98) and acting chief operating officer of the USFA (1999). He has bachelor’s degrees from Western Michigan University, Madonna College, and the University of Cincinnati. He is an adjunct faculty member of EMU and Maryland Staff and Command.