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At about 7 o’clock on a cold January evening, I was driving east on Ponce de Leon Avenue in Atlanta, GA. I was headed to a South Trust Bank ATM. I had just left fire headquarters when my cell phone rang. I pulled into the bank’s parking lot, saw the call was from the 202 area code and answered, “Hello, Chief Rubin here, how can I help you?”
The caller identified himself as a member of Washington, DC, Mayor Adrian Fenty’s transition team and said he was reaching out to me to discuss my applying for the open job as DC’s fire chief. I was skeptical that this was a legitimate offer. In fact, I was sure a close friend was playing a practical joke on me. After five successful years at Atlanta Fire Rescue, the last thing I expected was a call from my hometown fire department. But the call was genuine, and I started work in the District of Columbia on April 16, 2007. The job gave me dozens of learning opportunities to apply Rube’s Rules and demonstrate leadership. Upcoming installments in this series will discuss case-study incidents that had a big impact on the organization and the community.
After just 12 days as DCFD’s 25th fire chief, we experienced our first fire fatality with me at the helm. The victim was a 5-year-old girl and the fire investigation revealed that the house she died in did not have a working smoke detector. To add controversy to this very sad event, the address dispatched for the fire was incorrect. As I recall, there were six 911 calls for help to extinguish the fire that night. Each citizen calling in this raging fire provided the DC Office of Unified Communications with a different street address. The first caller was off by about a half-mile from the actual address.
Thankfully, DCFD dispatches five engines on the first alarm of a structural fire. As fate would have it, Engine 15 (Anacostia Firehouse) had to drive directly past the rowhouse that was ablaze. The company officer corrected the address and rearranged our order of response so that rescue and extinguishment operations could start immediately. Five minutes into the response, Engine 15 was starting a ladder rescue of the child’s parents, who were trapped at a window on side D. The quick and brave actions of this engine company saved the parents from traumatic injuries from a 20-foot fall or worse. Given the complication of this incident, it was amazing that the two adults were rescued without harm. Just a minute or two behind the engine, Truck 8 (Congress Heights Firehouse) arrived at the well-involved dwelling. The truck company initiated a primary search on the first floor to find the 5-year-old girl, who died of thermal and smoke injuries.
The next day, a press conference was held in front of the house where the fire occurred. The mayor described the valiant efforts that DC firefighters put forth to save lives at the fire. Next, the mayor asked me to detail the rescues and report on the status of the fire investigation. As I stood before the cameras as the new fire chief, I wasn’t prepared for the media frenzy that. The media seemingly wanted to discuss the response to the wrong location, but had little interest in the valiant rescues. The address issue was expected, but I would have guessed as a side note, maybe a subscript, not the headline. Instead of highlighting the great work of our firefighters, the media’s primary focus was the address issue. Attempting to explain that 911 callers must provide correct locations did not satisfy the thirst for a controversy. So, the day before I received my first DCFD paycheck was a wakeup call for how issues would be handled during the next four years. It was not a very nice welcome home.