The first thing I feel compelled to share with you all is an apology. I am a writer, not an editor. After another look at my rant, I see I didn't do a very good job of writing or editing or even telling the story. As I spoke about how emotion is used to manipulate the reader sometimes, it is apparent that another problem with emotion is that it causes you to lose focus. After reading the article in the Denver Post, I was pretty angry, and my post showed it. I felt like they took a cheap shot at the AFD, and I felt it was uncalled for.
I still maintain that Crummy and Murphy's article, or at least the lead-in, was intended to cause a reaction. Shortly after, though, a discussion with my esteemed colleague Dave Statter did cause me to look at my reaction and admit that I violated two of my main rules: "Understand all sides of the argument" and "Don't get caught up in the drama". His post also caused me to look again at what was presented in their article. In doing so, I can see Dave's point that the issue of communications and interoperability were definitely an issue that the AFD faced, and were valid observations. The long and short of it, however, was that I failed to enlighten. I was ranting. And for that you have my sincerest apology.
Consequently, there is a glimmer of good in all of the bad. Just as the old man told me in the wake of Katrina, "You find out how many people love you." We have to take away that through all this pain and suffering, at least there is a requirement for everyone involved, and everyone surrounding the issue, to examine their relationships with others, and realize what we mean to one another. In this case, aside from one or two trolls, the reaction to the article was overwhelmingly supportive of Aurora's emergency response professionals.
The question now is, what can we learn from this incident? From an operational standpoint, as we can with any of our own incidents, we can make notes in regard to improving our own response plans. To me, however, one of the most important lessons really did get illustrated by the article, or shall I say, the reaction to the article, aside from everyone learning about their appreciation for these responders. The lesson I want to talk about is how the Aurora Fire Department must have had a good relationship with their community prior to this event, and therefore, any accusations of substandard performance were dismissed by a large number of people from the community.
Specifically, the problem is that our communities have to be engaged partners in risk management, and by that, I mean, that the buy-in on our method of operating must be one that we can all live with. When community "leaders" continually suggest that maintaining current staffing is unrealistic, or when these same people are engaged in de-funding necessary equipment or apparatus needs, it is a problem. The hypocrisy of the situation is that these same individuals who make broad statements about public safety being overfunded and overcapitalized are the same ones we seem to find screaming for action when there is a failure of the system because of the very resources they denied us. We can talk about issues like interoperability until we are blue in the face, but to be candid, the solutions require funding. Other initiatives that require attention, like unification of command, require wholesale cultural change which could also use funding, as could maintaining adequate numbers of resources. But the underlying challenge, and the real root of the problem, is that while we in emergency services can plan away, we need community support to make these changes happen.
This being said, of course, doesn't imply that the responders in Aurora got overwhelming support from their customers prior to this. It certainly doesn't suggest that they had all the resources necessary to deal with this kind of a situation. I, however, do not mean to suggest that each community must maintain staffing and equipment to handle events like this one available for daily response. We can't do this and be responsible to the taxpayers in our jurisdiction. We must maximize the resources we have, create regional partnerships, and call for the right help when we need it. But importantly, what we have now is an invitation to dialogue. This is now an opportunity to re-engage, to revisit automatic and mutual aid agreements, to reinforce joint planning, and to practice in case the next time happens. After Columbine, after Virginia Tech, and now after Aurora, who would have thought this might happen again? How many times have you heard someone say "That won't happen here"? You could probably ask the response agencies in Anne Arundel County, Maryland that question and I'm pretty sure they can give you a quick answer.
The challenge is ours to accept. You see, the haters who think emergency response is bloated and unreasonably funded get that perspective because their ideas formed in a vacuum. If we aren't actively getting the message out to the customers about what we do, the attitudes of those with at least a borderline grudge against public safety will prevail. We must get the citizens involved in determining the means and the method in which we provide our service. The idea is that while you provide the service, the people that you serve must understand that they need to support the people of your own agency: your progressively minded, forward thinking, efficient, engaged, transparent organization. The way to do this is through development of relationships with your community.
Fire and EMS leaders must reach out to the community activists, the families, the schools, the social clubs, and anyone else who will listen way in advance of a crisis. Throughout this outreach, it is imperative that we maintain accountability and transparency. But the status quo is not sufficient, not even in communities who think they have all the corners nailed down. As Dave points out in his letter to me, the method that has been employed traditionally is to wait until a crisis occurs and then try to handle it in the media.
Proactive emergency response organizations maintain positive relationships with the people they serve and the people they serve with. If there are lessons to be learned from this disaster, and there will be many, it is that we must continue to reach out to the community and solicit their assistance in determining acceptable service levels, in educating them on the necessity of having adequate staffing and other resources, and in helping us help them. We have to remain steadfast and even when we have those who can't say anything good about us, if we are doing the right things and doing so openly, there will be nobody who can be against us.
Please continue to keep the good people of Aurora in your thoughts and take the time to look around your own community, and see what you can do to be proactive, to understand the situation status in your own backyard, and to be ready if the time comes.