THE DYNAMICS OF TRUTH
In just a few precious minutes, everything that could go wrong on the fireground did. And the fire was unforgiving, unmerciful.
Early in the morning on April 11, 1994, five firefighters ascended an elevator to the ninth floor—the fire floor—of the Regis Tower high-rise residence building in Memphis, Tennessee, to investigate a report of fire. Tragic errors were made. About 15 minutes into the operation, firefighters located two fallen members who had become trapped in the heavy heat and smoke.
In death. Private William E. Bridges and Lieutenant Michael L. Mathis of the Memphis Fire Department live on, as do all fallen firefighters, in the living continuum we call fire service tradition. But that’s not enough: Learning from the tragedy is the redemption for the firefighters who succeed them.
To that end we rely largely on the postincident reaction of the grieving fire department. In this litigious society, under the intense scrutiny of the media, amidst a flurry of inquiries and second-guessing—even by our own people—it takes great courage and true leadership to open the doors and invite others in so that the loss can become a tool for learning.
In the wake of the Regis Tower tragedy. Fire Director Charles E. Smith of the Memphis Fire Department opened the doors fully, held nothing back. Recently, I asked him about that decision.
Q: Why did you decide to make full public disclosure of the incident?
Smith: There are lessons to learn from any tragedy….With the highrise fire, we really never attempted to “go nationwide” with it. We were contacted early on [by various media sources] and said we wanted to share the results of the investigation, but first we committed internally to the Memphis Fire Department. We decided initially that whatever was determined in the investigation would be published and circulated to every fire station in the city of Memphis. That was really our objective. We were committed to making sure our people were aware of exactly what happened and that we planned to implement whatever recommendations came out of the board of inquiry to prevent this from happening again….We wanted to make our people real comfortable with the investigation, to dispel any rumors, and lay it all on the line.
Q; Did you have concerns for the legal implications? Did fire department lawyers recommend against public disclosure? I know for many chiefs, that’s a major issue, especially in a fatal fire. Many times they tell me. “Yeah, I would like to share the lessons, but the lawyer told me to shut up and I’m going to shut up for the next three years.”
Smith: I can’t speak for other cities, but I don’t understand that,…Fortunately in the city of Memphis. 1 work with an administration 1 feel is very open, and I work with city attorneys who obviously are concerned with liability; but my belief is that the liability [issue will be] there regardless of what you do with the [investigation! report. Certainly, the worst thing you can do as a fire chief is try to “cover up’’….
Q: There isn’t anything you can say that a good prosecuting attorney hasn’t already figured out, right?
Smith: That’s it…and you have to look at it from an objective point of view and say, “Okay, the value of this incident to my personnel—to prevent this from happening in the future—more than offsets any liability that I may incur..,.” 1 think if fire chiefs would sit down with city attorneys and look at it from that point of view, most would (come to the same conclusion]. The liability [issue] is there; there’s nothing you can do about it. In my opinion, by laying your cards on the table, you’re probably in a better position to begin with.
Q: What’s been the internal and external reaction to what amounts to holding your department up to public scrutiny?
Smith: Our employees were very complimentary of the report. Firefighters 1 sat down with and talked to really had a lot of trust in the report. But initially—and I think it’s just a human reaction—I don’t think anyone trusted the investigation. But once we laid out the objectives and appointed the members [to the review board], the [members] saw a level of competence there. We decided from the beginning we would not rush the report. We gave ourselves 60 to 90 days. We had six team members on the committee who worked full time for weeks—whatever it took. We made a commitment to get the report right….I believe our members, once they saw the report, recognized that even with the outside and inside pressures, we stayed on line. When they got that report, well, there might have been a few individuals who said, “I don’t think it actually happened that way,” but no one that 1 was aware of ever challenged the integrity of the report or the system or process we used. We sat down with the firefighters involved in the incident, and all agreed that’s the way it happened. We had every single individual come in and testify, had letters written about the incident. A day or two after the incident, we took companies down there and started videotaping. had them walk through exactly what happened. It became very clear to most of our members this thing was going to tell it like it was….You know, when you have 100 guys operating on the scene and they’re seeing things that they don’t think are right, they’re gonna know—there’s no sense BS-ing them—they’re gonna know if you’re telling the truth in the report….
After the report was reviewed internally and ready for public release, we called a press conference. We created the graphs and documentation for the press and [prepared a 45-minute presentation]. During the presentation I was really shocked that the media had so few questions about the operation. Afterward I asked some media representatives why they had no [substantial questions]; they said it was one of the first press conferences they’d ever been to where all the questions they [intended to ask] were answered….[In the press conference] l told them that using a Snorkel stream from outside while we had people operating inside the building was an absolute violation of standard operating procedures. And I think they were shocked I said that. But what else can you say? That’s a violation.
We had wide support in the community….I believe this community was very supportive because they have a governmental agency that stepped forward and said, “This is exactly what happened.”
Q: What other benefits came out of your search of the truth? For example. have you modified your SOPs or renewed your commitment to training because of this incident?
Smith: Absolutely. We have in the process accomplished a ”180” on our high-rise plan. We’re now developing a plan I feel is very unique, because we’re attacking a high-rise fire from a task-force concept now….We’re building in a strong accountability now. Companies will operate in minimums of three. They’ll have a battalion commander assigned to them. Each company will be given specific functions….
I think the most valuable lesson from the incident was that we did look at our procedures. And when 1 want to test something out—a high-rise or other procedure in the downtown area—I go to the fire stations. I clustered all the companies about two weeks ago after work and spent the evening with them. I went over [the new] concepts because I didn’t want to go to another concept without these guys buying in….(To get real value from the lessons], you get back down to the grass roots level and really get the input from the guys who are doing the job.
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Q: What recommendations would you have for other departments in a similar situation? I guess, be forthright and honest like you just said?
Smith: To say to be honest is one thing; to have a plan is another. You’ve got to be prepared that [tragedies such as] this can happen. We’re in one of the most hazardous occupations in the United States. You never fully accept it, but the reality is that firefighters get seriously injured and killed. So you need to have a plan for any serious incident. You don’t have to have a person killed; you may have an individual who’s injured and you have a have a process for investigating that injury. The plan is very valuable. We have ftreground fatality protocols now’ that have to be followed, because so much can come at you at one time that you [won’t be able to] handle it without a plan….
You have a duty to your personnel and to your community to tell the truth, and you have a duty to conduct an objective investigation.
I’ve seen Director Smith’s brand of leadership before—the kind that allows the dynamics of truth to work. The truth builds and creates opportunities. It fosters learning. It brings people together. It encourages forgiveness.
It takes courage to give the gift of truth, but it is worth it—-to the recipient, yes, but most of all to the giver. When someone is taken from you, sometimes only an act of giving can begin to fill your empty heart. In Memphis, the gift has ensured that the deaths of Private Bridges and Lieutenant Mathis were not in vain.
Fire Engineering will publish a complete report on the Regis Tower incident in an upcoming issue.