When scanners reported a fire at around 6:12 p.m., there was still a little light in the sky. When the released a report, it was pitch black at 10:15 p.m.—more than three hours after the fire reportedly was put out at about 7 p.m.
That's simply too long to keep people in the dark.
The hard truth is that there was a fire at a hospital last night, and nobody—not one public servant or hospital official—thought it was important enough to let the public know about it.
No notice to the media. No Nixle e-mail blast. No post on the hospital website.
As of 1 p.m. today, Friday, there is still no mention of it on the hospital website. If you can find it, let me know.
Any resident who had a family member in a hospital room or friends on staff or a reason to access to the emergency room last night has a right to be outraged—and the hospital PR team and police and fire officials have every reason to be ashamed at the way this emergency was communicated.
It's an "F," plain and simple. And something needs to change.
There will be excuses and counter-arguments to this viewpoint. I've heard them 1,000 times before during 30 years in the local news business.
- We're fighting a fire. We don’t have time to let the public know.
- We need time to assess the situation and give accurate information.
- No one was ever in any danger.
- We didn’t want to cause a panic.
None of that holds water.
- To suggest that there isn't enough manpower is just plain false. When there's a fire at a hospital, all hands should be on deck.
- Firefighters know the situation 15 minutes after they've arrived on the scene—often sooner—and they are communicating to co-workers and to hire-ups throughout.
- If no one is in danger, tell us that.
- If you don't want to cause a panic, provide timely, solid information that will help prevent exactly that.
Here's how bad it was last night.
I heard the first scanner report about 6:10 p.m., and posted a bulletin. Had I not been near the scanner, there's a good chance I would not have known about the fire at all. Several media outlets had no story last night.
I drove to the scene, where I bet there were at least 20 emergency vehicles on all sides of the hospital. Clearly, there was something big going on—any driver on Randall would have seen it. Still, no one thought that the public should know why.
I got back home around 7 p.m. and started making calls.
I called the Delnor main number. No answer.
I called the hospital’s PR number. A pleasant-sounding person said she couldn’t offer any information—although she did say no one was hurt.
I called the Geneva Fire Department at 7:50 p.m. and was told, again kindly, that no information would be available for at least another hour. I called again at 9 p.m., and was told the press release would be coming in another 45 minutes. The officer said he'd e-mail me the press release.
It didn't come, so I called back around 10 p.m. and an on-call lieutenant was kind enough to read it to me.
But look, my complaint isn't with any one agency or individual. It's not about a reporter's frustrations to get solid information on deadline. Or that information sources are sometimes recalcitrant or oblivious of the public's right to know about emergency efforts.
What bothers me is the attitude that it's not important.
We have the technology to communicate via websites and e-blasts. We have a half dozen outstanding local media outlets capable of distributing information quickly and effectively. Hospitals and municipalities and fire and police departments have websites and squad-car computers, Facebook and Twitter, cell phones and iPads.
The argument I'm making here doesn't apply to most fires and few emergencies, thank God. But when there's a fire at a hospital or emergency at a school or a bleacher collapse at a public place, you've got to give the community the information we need to know.
Establish a protocol. Use the tools at your disposal.
This shouldn't have been a case where a reporter had to dig for information. This is a case where the hospital and the police and fire departments have an obligation, a responsibility—a duty—to get the public as much good information as they can, as quickly as they can.
Anything less is a gross disservice to the people you're sworn to serve.