On Saturday, The Star finished running a blockbuster series of three reports on the state of fire suppression in the United States.
The upshot of the series was that scores of firefighters around the country have died needlessly for three main reasons:
:: Fire departments do not have standardized, national training standards and are not subject to federal regulations established by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) or another federal agency.
:: Partly because of the lack of centralized regulation, individual fire departments continue making the same mistakes over and over, often failing to institute procedural changes in the wake of precedent-setting tragedies.
:: A culture of aggressive fire suppression — rushing pell-mell into burning buildings, for example — over safety.
One of the most striking elements of the story was in Part 3, when a former Phoenix fire chief, Alan Brunacini, was quoted as saying, “We only have one eulogy (at firefighter funerals) and it’s a very heroic eulogy.”
His point was many of those “heroic” deaths shouldn’t have happened and wouldn’t have happened if fire departments had been putting a higher priority on safety nationwide.
Here in Kansas City, we have seen more than our share of “heroic firefighter funerals,” the last ones being in October 2015, after firefighters Larry Leggio, 43, and John Mesh, 39, died when an exterior wall collapsed on them in an alley as they were fighting an Independence Boulevard arson fire.
It came to light later that they should not have been in that alley at that time. A “collapse zone,” which included the alley, had been declared, but for one reason or another — confusion, communication problems or supervisory failure — the order to clear did not get through to Leggio and Mesh.
The two reporters who broke that story — exposing the fact that Leggio and Mesh should not have been in the alley — are the ones who investigated and wrote this current series. The Independence Boulevard fire provided a natural springboard for the investigative series.
The lead reporter was Mike Hendricks, a 30-year veteran of The Star, who has transformed himself from a columnist to top-notch investigative reporter. The co-author was Matt Campell, one of the most solid and versatile reporters in The Star’s greatly reduced reporting ranks and also a 30-year-plus employee.
Besides Hendricks and Campbell, others who deserve credit are managing editor Greg Farmer, editor Mike Fannin and publisher Tony Berg, whose blessing the investigative effort required. (As many of you know, I’m not a great Fannin fan, but he puts a high priority on investigative reporting — a journalistic dimension that tends to elevate major metropolitan newspapers over most other news-gathering operations in big cities. In the case of the firefighting series, Fannin’s “big throw” instincts paid off.)
I found it interesting that the editors chose to run this series on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. That’s a change from times past, when most big series have started on a Sunday, the biggest circulation day.
The timing seemed to work out well, however, partly because it gave Hendricks and Campbell an opportunity to write a fourth story in today’s (Sunday’s) paper — in which they reported national reaction to the series. That story also made the front page, meaning the paper got a “bonus” A1 story out of the series.
Although The Star dedicated hundreds and hundreds of column inches to the series — very appropriately, in my opinion — I’m not sure it struck a chord with lots of readers. I haven’t heard a single person talking about it, and my 28-year-old daughter Brooks, an avid reader of The Star, didn’t read it.
One reason for the lack of a “buzz,” I think, is people’s decreasing attention spans: For many people, if they can’t read something quickly on their phones, they don’t bother. It’s a rotten shame that’s the way it is, and it’s contributing, I believe, to a citizenry that is less connected, less interested in what’s going on around them and less interested in taking the time to find out. That’s a big, big problem of course.
Another reason, in my opinion, is that while the “state of firefighting” is extremely important, it doesn’t resonate deeply with a majority of residents and readers. I think it’s safe to say that many people would get keenly interested in firefighting only if their house was on fire and their loved ones were in danger. For many people, it simply never becomes an issue of significant concern.
It’s a different story, though, at the national level, among fire service leaders and fire safety advocates. Their working lives revolve around fire suppression and fire safety. At that level, this series was an overwhelming success. For example, a deputy district fire chief in Chicago sent The Star an email saying, “Absolutely the finest, most comprehensive article on (line-of-duty deaths) I have ever read.”
…The best way to judge an investigative series is if it triggers significant changes. I expect this series will do that. Fire officials who were quoted in today’s follow-up story said, among other things, that the series should spur many departments to re-evaluate their operations and advance the push, at the national level, for consistent firefighting regulations and mandatory minimum training standards.
This series was a great public service to readers and the firefighting industry. I firmly believe that the changes it prompts will end up saving somebody like Larry Leggio or somebody like John Mesh — “heroes” who by all rights should still be with us today.