Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Deadly House Fire, and Blame Gets in the Way

Last month, three adult members of a single family died in an early morning house fire here in Ann Arbor.  When firefighters arrived, the house was fully engulfed in flame.  They could not get in to rescue the occupants.  The Alexandropoulos family was first reported as missing, and later in the day three bodies were found.  From the beginning, this story seemed odd.  Firefighters took more than 10 minutes to arrive, and the stated reason was that they were on the scene of another call.  But the other call was around the corner and wasn't a fire at all.  Something wasn't right.

Now the City Council has been briefed on a fuller version of the story.  Apparently, neighbors a few blocks away awoke to the smell of smoke and went out into the neighborhood looking for the source.  A large amount of smoke was coming out of a chimney in an unoccupied house, and they called 911 at 2:53 AM to report it.  Meanwhile, neighbors on the same street as the fire, and west of the first callers, reported smoke coming from the east.  Firefighters were dispatched to the house where the smoke was reported, but found it was not the source of the smoke.  Finally, at 3:06 AM, a caller gave the correct location of the house, but it was too late. 

Last night, the City Administrator, Roger Fraser, briefed the City Council and blamed confusion over the address for the slow response.  Meanwhile, rumor has it that 911 operators did not know where the correct address was located even once they had it.  Tapes of the calls have not been released.  Everyone agrees that the house had no smoke detectors and there is some speculation that the house was fully involved before the first call was ever made.  The local press quotes Fraser as saying,
Our request is that if you have such an incident that you're unfortunately involved with, please give us as specific information as you can when you call, because at that time, in the context of what was going on, our firefighters knew nothing more than the fact that that [wrong] address could have been the location that they were all talking about.

I think we can all agree that this fire is a tragedy.  It is also natural that our minds turn to blame when something like this happens.  The city blames the callers, the callers blame the city, and everyone blames the victims.  I think, however, that Fraser is missing an opportunity to do some very helpful crisis communication.  He is so busy circling the wagons to deflect any blame from the city, that he isn't actually helping anyone who is upset.

When something goes wrong, it is only natural that we want to prove that we didn't do it or weren't at fault.  However, following a traumatic incident, what people most need to hear is not, actually, who is to blame, but rather what is being done to prevent it from happening to them.  As much as our minds go to blame, they are really going to protection.  If we can blame someone, we think we can prevent that someone from doing anything to us.  How much better would it be if we knew that that someone is working on it themselves? 

So here's what Fraser should have said:
We've discovered three factors that may have contributed to this tragedy:  a lack of smoke detectors, confusing information about the address, and difficulty finding the house.  Our job now is to work on each of these factors to try to make sure they don't happen again.  We are stepping up our efforts to educate the public about smoke detectors.  We are retraining our 911 dispatchers to make sure they ask for very specific information when they receive a call.  And we are looking at our GPS systems and reverse 911 capabilities to see if anything can be done to improve our ability to find difficult addresses.  We hope that the public will help us by installing smoke detectors and being very specific when they call 911.  Together, we can prevent this from happening again.
What we most need, at a time like this, is not to feel mad.  It's to feel safe.  This is a great example of how, so often, our public officials have the opportunity to do that for us, and don't.


Colleen said...

What about really good addresses? I love how Concord addresses are numbers that tell you how far from the beginning of the street they are, so just by the number, the police and firemen know which house it is, even if you have no number on it, even WITHOUT a GPS!

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