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.


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 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 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 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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