Opinion: Hospital, Public Officials Earn 'F' for Communication of Thursday's Hospital FIre

When there's a fire at a hospital, it's the duty of hospital, police and fire officials to let people know what's happening.

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.


Craig Burgess December 02, 2011 at 11:46 PM
So you drove to the scene. Did you identify yourself to the authorities and ask to speak with the PIO (public information officer)? Who all did you identify yourself to and ask what the situation was? In 31 years in the fire service, I've never heard a journalist complain like this.
Joe Williams December 03, 2011 at 03:27 AM
It appears from the information presented that this was a minor fire. I wouldnt think it is standard procedure to make community/media notifications for an incident that does not require immediate notification (ex. anhydrous ammonia tank leak with a vapor cloud heading towards a heavily populated area). Just because an alert didnt show up on Twitter doesnt mean there was a communication disconnect, it means it probably wasnt warranted.
David December 03, 2011 at 04:49 AM
Craig Burgess and Joe Williams couldn't of said it any better, look Nagel if you want your information for your local rant be aggressive and go up to a PIO officer and get your information from that official WHO'S SOLE JOB IS TO INFORM THE PUBLIC AND MEDIA OF WHAT IS GOING ON....hence the name...Public...information....officer... man for being a journalist for 30 yrs you should be well aware. And finally I'm pretty sure the police nor fire department doesn't have to go out of their way to inform people of every call they get that's the job of a JOURNALIST unless there is a situation where people are in danger and need to be evacuated. So in MY OPINION Geneva patch has received an "F" for failure in obtaining the information they wanted to get, no other news organizations complained bout this matter maby they just KNOW HOW to get their information if they want it...
Rick Nagel (Editor) December 03, 2011 at 02:19 PM
Joe: I think you put your finger on a couple of key words: "standard procudure" and "warranted." Police have the capability now to send Nixle e-mail alerts. North Aurora does it when there's a festival in town and streets are closed. This was a fire at a hospital with an emergency room—significant enough for 10 departments to respond. It should be standard procedure to post a website note and send a Nixle e-blast with the essentials: There is a fire at the hospital, no one is hurt, the emergency room is still open to the public, police and fire officials ask residents to refrain from visits, we'll update again in 20 minutes. The protocols in place are the same as they were 10, 20, 30 years ago. We can do better.
Rick Nagel (Editor) December 03, 2011 at 02:44 PM
Hi, Craig! You must not know many journalists. I don't know one who doesn't have a horror story about trying to gather information from official sources during an emergency. To answer your question, we tag-teamed this coverage. I got there first, saw the number of departments involved and that there was indeed a fire, took some photos and went home to file the preliminary story. St. Charles Patch Editor Nick Swedberg got there a few minutes after I did, ID'd himself to officers and continued the on-scene reporting. Journalists typically don't complain. But someone should. The emergency situations when officials need to inform the public are few, thankfully. But a fire at a hospital is one of them. We have the technology. The Nixle e-blast can quickly let the public know what's going on.
Joe Williams December 03, 2011 at 03:13 PM
Rick: Your right, there are various methods to inform the public. For example this company http://www.ecnetwork.com/codered/citizens.php which sends out "critical" notices to citizens via phone or email if the city subscribes to the service. Critical as in evacuations, amber alerts, natural disasters, etc. This is a service subscribed to by the municipality and then each citizen who opts in must sign up to receive alerts. This can also be done through social media, websites, and email, but to notify the public that there was a trash can fire at the mall and Sears is temorarily inaccessible or that there was a minor fire at Delnor and services were unaffected would mean hiring a fulltime person to only update these avenues with information. Many newspapers and news channels have their own twitter and facebook pages and update critical incident information or whatever they deem news to whomever subscribes. That means they obtained information from its source for any public safety agency, the PIO. It sounds like your a little mad you had to stay up past your bedtime to get the full story out.
Sandy Kaczmarski December 03, 2011 at 03:34 PM
I am a bit surprised by these comments. I continually find it surprising that the public today is so accepting of government control, that there must be a good reason why they're not telling us, etc. The public always has a right to know, and when that many taxpayer supported fire responders show up at a hospital, yeah, the press has a right to report on it. I have about as many reporting years as Rick, as well as having worked as a PIO and PR director. As such, I've also been trained in crisis management -- something that should be a staple for a hospital. If you don't do your own PR it will be done for you -- by assumption, rumors and misinformation. Keep complaining Rick. This wasn't a wastebasket fire. Everyone is entitled to know exactly what happened and how it was handled in a timely manner.
Joe Williams December 03, 2011 at 04:10 PM
Yes they do have a right. But you can only receive the correct and timely information if you go to the right source.
Kurt Wehrmeister December 03, 2011 at 04:47 PM
Folks, please allow me to butt in here. First, I have worked both sides of this situation over my 32 years in this business -- both as reporter and as media-relation representative -- and let me emphatically say that Rick is on-target. If there was a fire at my current place of employment, Mooseheart Child City & School, well, I may or may not be too wrapped up in trying to get the information, or in my own personal evening plans. But most reporters in the area know how to get hold of me -- and if both I and my assistant were in-town but unavailable or unwilling to receive reporters' calls and give as much information as I knew, as to extent of damage, and most importantly to confirm that no one was hurt or in physical danger, then I'm simply not doing my job, and deserving of the criticism that Rick is leveling here. Secondly, anyone who assumes that Rick is a "typical complaining journalist" doesn't know Rick Nagel very well. He is among the most courteous, patient, level-headed, least-likely-to-jump-to-conclusion journalists I know -- a whole lot more willing to give the benefit of the doubt than, frankly, I am. If, in this situation, he is taking the PR professionals involved to task, it behooves us to pay attention, it seems to me.
Sandy Kaczmarski December 03, 2011 at 07:17 PM
@Joe, reporters typically go to the scene and typically fire, police chiefs are prepared to speak to the press. I'm sure you've seen TV coverage of accidents, fires, etc. Rick did go to the source. And Kurt is absolutely right. PR people have a media list and contact numbers for the press --to actually handle situations like this. If someone had been hurt or if patients had been in danger, you would have wanted to know that rather than having that info withheld or downplayed. If the press isn't there asking the questions, who is?
Joe Williams December 04, 2011 at 03:50 AM
Your correct. I do believe that the public does need to be made aware of certain emergency situations and the media does a great job with relaying this information to the public, especially after the advent of social media. I was only trying to make Mr. Nagel aware that the best way to obtain info from an mergency incident is to talk to the PIO. I think the public is just extra critical of timely information or lack there of in a day when we can post in an instant where we are and what we are doing.
Ned Jacklin December 04, 2011 at 06:08 AM
Haven't read all of the comments above, but I wonder why the public needs to know. And why in such a hurry? Are they going to go help put out the fire? The fire department's first job is to deal with the situation. And with a hospital, they're going to respond with more truck and firemen than they need. They'd rather have too many than too few. Geneva FD is no doubt too small to have a full-time PIO, so someone has to fill that role after s/he help deal with the situation. Even with all the electronic gadgets mentioned above, it takes a little while for someone to gather accurate information from personnel scattered all over the campus and then compile and disseminate the information. Heck, in Aurora and Naperville, the media can't even hear what's going on via their scanners anymore.
Rick Nagel (Editor) December 04, 2011 at 02:50 PM
Hi, Ned! That's one of my big concerns in a nutshell. The PIO method is too slow. And what scares me is that nobody seems to get that. This was a mutual aid box alarm fire at a major hospital. It was a confirmed structure fire. Ten departments showed up. Ask yourself this: What if the emergency room had to be closed? How long would it take before the public would find out?
Rick Nagel (Editor) December 04, 2011 at 03:13 PM
Kurt's right, and this is another of my concerns. The Delnor communications response seems to be: say as little as possible. It's the opposite of what should be happening and would not have been tolerated when Brian Griffin or Amy Jo Steinbruecker were in charge. Here is Delnor's full statement sent by e-mail at 12:56 p.m. Friday, a little less than 19 hours after the start of the fire. (This was in response to a followup call I made on Friday.) "I received your voicemail and below is the statement. We can confirm that there was a small fire in a non-patient area last night at Delnor Hospital. The fire was quickly contained and some patients were moved as a precaution."
Craig Burgess December 04, 2011 at 06:42 PM
Hi Rick, thank you for explaining further, how you and your partner tried to get information about the fire. Your opinion article makes more sense know. It IS vitally important for the public to be made aware of dangerous situations. To this end, perhaps this discourse of differing opinions will fuel the fire to make some changes, that will better serve the public. You're a very good journalist and keep up the good work!
Rick Nagel (Editor) December 04, 2011 at 10:12 PM
Hi, Craig! Thanks so much for your comments, but most importantly, thanks for your 31 years of service with the Fire Department. It should be said that Geneva is blessed with terrific firefighters, police officers and public servants. I also hope this dialogue leads to examination of and improvements to the emergency communications process.


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