Reports are coming in from Columbia, South Carolina that one firefighter was killed and another seriously injured when they were struck by a vehicle while operating along the interstate. This is a tragedy, and, as with all LODDs, the hearts of those of us on this blog go out to the families, crews, and department affected.
As I have some friends in the area, I started following the release of information when the first LODD notification came out from SC on Fire via The Secret List. On examination of local news outlets in the Columbia area, however, I found very different information. Network affiliates were reporting that two firefighters had been seriously injured, with one possibly on life support, and that they were waiting for word from fire officials regarding any change in the condition of the members. Within minutes of the news stories posting, folks began making comments that were mostly supportive of the Columbia FD. However, a few of our brethren quickly linked back to the story that was supposedly “broken” by SC on Fire that a LODD had occurred, thus muddying the water for the public, and eventually leading to a comment being posted by someone (apparently a FF in the area) releasing the allegedly deceased member’s name hours before there was official confirmation that a life had even been lost. After much ado, this particular comment was removed by the media outlet.
SC on Fire then retracted the previous LODD info that had already been disseminated through TSL, awaiting official notice from Columbia FD administration, and citing “a lot of information… indicating that one of Columbia’s bravest had made the ultimate sacrifice…” They corrected the previous post with a statement that the allegedly deceased FF was in the hospital on life support.
Almost an hour later, officials released a statement confirming that one firefighter had succumbed to his injuries. We can safely assume that this statement was made only after appropriate notification had been made to the next of kin. Shortly thereafter, SC on Fire came out with the names of both members, and the information charlie foxtrot situation was finally resolved…
Except, of course, for the fact that the name leaked in the errant comment was actually the name of the injured member– not the deceased. Allow me to say that a different way: The family and friends of one of our brothers heard that he had died, and he didn’t; the family and friends of another of our brothers assumed that he was alright, and he wasn’t. This, in and of itself, is a tragedy and an outrage.
So what went wrong and what was handled properly? I don’t know. What I do know is that information is traveling faster than it ever has before, and this insanely fast transmission rate directly affects the way the public perceives the fire service corporate. The incidents in which we are involved are no longer revealed to the public solely by the nightly newscast and the morning paper… Social media, smart phones, subject-specific blogs and other “new media,” text messaging, RSS feeds– all of this came into play both in addition to and in conjunction with traditional media during the aftermath of this tragedy. The simple fact that my email now comes to the phone on my hip rather than the computer at my desk is the sole reason that we are already discussing this situation, instead of trying to play information catch-up sometime tomorrow. This particular incident perfectly illustrates the burden of both traditional and new media to present information that is timely, accurate, and appropriate for the situation at hand, while still giving the viewer or reader the details that he or she wants.
There are resources available from several sources, including the NFFF and the affiliate LODD Task Force in Texas that include protocol for dealing with traditional media outlets. Columbia is a progressive organization, and most certainly had these procedures in place, as well as established relationships with traditional media that allowed them to have a modicum of control over what the press was putting out. However, I don’t know of any resources regarding information security following a LODD or other incident in the age of social networking and new media. Further, how do we confront and discuss the slow road to death with which modern medicine now provides us? Is a firefighter who exhibits no neurological activity, but is breathing and pulsile (thanks to medical mechanics) while awaiting organ donation procedures, “deceased?” Whether, and how, it is acceptable for fire service personnel to disseminate sensitive information in times such as the moment in which Columbia FD officials found themselves, and identifying ways to control the floodgates of digital information sharing, are bridges that we, as a group, are going to have to cross, and it needs to be done very, very soon, so that this never, ever happens again.
All of that having been said– rest in peace, brother.