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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.
It was clear we were not going to win over the media easily. I had one secret weapon back at the office – the executive staff at the department. Insight, intelligence and experience are just a few of the traits these top fire-rescue performers bring to work every day. As I started to “lick my media-inflicted wounds,” one of the assistant fire chiefs (Larry Schultz) reminded me that I was in the “big leagues” – “understand that, remember it and get over it. Now let’s move this agency forward.” In fact, that was my second brush with the press. At the press conference at which Mayor Fenty introduced his two newest cabinet members (the director of the city’s Emergency Management Agency and me), a TV journalist asked me three times how I could be effective as a white fire chief in a majority black city. I calmly informed the reporter that I had worked in Atlanta, Norfolk, VA, and DC in my career without issue. When he approached the topic for a third time, Mayor Fenty exercised executive privilege and stopped calling on the reporter for questions. Clearly, Chief Schultz was on target with his comments and advice.
Now was the time to improve operations based on the tragic fire death we had just experienced. Two impressive ideas were developed and planned out by the executive and senior staff. The first proposal was to add a fire liaison officer (FLO) at the Office of Unified Communications to help prevent future wrong-address issues and other dispatch concerns. Equally important for fire administration was to add a fire representative to the front line of the “brains and voice” (dispatch center) of our response system. This need was obvious to our staff, but we had to convince the mayor and get four new uniform positions (plus relief coverage) added to the budget (for about a half-million dollars). I was still on my “new job honeymoon,” so I was hoping we would be successful with this mission-critical request.
Next was a complete overhaul of the smoke-detector program, which was initiated in 1975 by Dr. Burton Clark (now of National Fire Academy fame) under the direction of then-Fire Chief Burton Johnson. A little-known fact was that Dr. Clark was the only person assigned to the smoke-alarm campaign some 35 years earlier. The District of Columbia program, SAVU – for Smoke Alarm Verification and Utilization –can serve as a great model if you are just getting started on this journey (see “Preventing Harm, One Home at a Time,” Firehouse®, November 2007).
As luck would have it, both proposals were acceptable to the mayor and funded. Today, born from this tragedy, the department has a fire officer assigned to the communications component of the city. The system is not perfect by any means, but the department is better served by having someone looking out for its best interests and needs during this critical process. The city’s smoke detector program is second to none. Since it was implemented, the city experienced one year with only four fire deaths from a typical average of 25 per year. The communications center was the target of much criticism, mostly by firefighters. Now, there is a fire officer at the facility, keeping everyone informed and working to avoid dispatch-related mistakes.
I will use an old adage to describe the lesson we learned in this process. It goes something like this: “Success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan.” In other words, everyone in city government wanted to be associated with the outstanding results. To succeed, you must get all stakeholders involved early and work to get them committed to the vision of the department’s success. Without question, these are two of the most successful programs in the department. My next column will discuss the aftermath of a major fire that all but destroyed a Washington, DC, treasure.