Administration and Leadership

Fire Chief Avoids Scandal with Self-Reporting

Issue 1 and Volume 37.

It’s interesting to watch how high-profile individuals deal with an image crisis. I watched as U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner tried to wiggle his way out of a tweet of himself wearing briefs that he had accidentally sent to all of his Twitter followers, instead of his intended target. What was usually a private message between two individuals turned into a public distribution.

The mistake of sending a picture of his private parts damaged his marriage, career and reputation. But did he handle it correctly?

When the scandal first broke, Congressman Weiner vehemently denied that he did anything of the kind and insinuated that someone had hacked his Twitter account as an attempt to set him up. Then he argued and challenged one reporter in an arrogant and aggressive manner during a press conference.

If he had hired an image consultant at the time, he would have been advised to do the exact opposite of what he did. Image consultants will tell you that when you’re the center of a public relations crisis, you have only a small window of time to get it right. And you have only one shot.

This example leads me to the story of Los Angeles Fire Chief Brian Cummings.

The Story
During late summer 2011, a television station in Los Angeles broke a story of two different fire trucks from the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) being used in scenes for pornographic movies in 2008, involving an actress named Charley Chase. One of the movie shoots occurred on Venice Beach. The scandal caused a stir in LAFD, and a spokesperson said the incidents would be investigated by the city’s Professional Standards Division. It was, and the firefighters involved were reprimanded.

Chief Cummings had only become the fire chief one month before the porn scandal broke, but when it did, he decided to blow the whistle on himself about a similar situation.

Shortly thereafter, without any scandal breaking and without anyone else exposing it, Chief Cummings publicly announced that he was involved in a similar incident 13 years earlier when he was a fire captain at the Venice fire station. Firefighters had asked a woman walking by dressed in a bikini to take a picture with them. One television station in Los Angeles reported that at least one picture was taken with the woman topless.

The LAFD has a statute of limitations of two years. Beyond two years, no employee can be punished.

Regardless of the statute of limitations, Chief Cummings decided to impose punishment on himself and do 120 hours of community service at a woman’s shelter and with youth mentoring programs.

In an interview with a television station, Chief Cummings said, “I apologize to the residents of Los Angeles, Mayor Villaraigosa and the brave men and women of the Los Angeles Fire Department for this incident.”

Cummings called his part in the photo incident “irresponsible and inappropriate” and said he came forward with the pictures for accountability.

“This is an opportunity for a teachable moment,” Cummings said. “To be able to use my personal experience of what happened to me to be able to help my young firefighters, to keep them from making the same type of mistake, is invaluable.”

Lessons Learned
Compare the way Weiner handled his crisis with how Cummings handled his involvement in an inappropriate incident. Cummings actually got ahead of the issue before it became a crisis.

He decided to deal with it before someone brought it out in the open or recognized that he should use the one incident to admit an error in judgment.

Although delayed, it was an example of leadership because it addressed an issue not viewed as major 13 years earlier. Cummings dealt with the past issue before it surfaced. Doing so sent a message to the rest of the fire department to learn from his mistake and to be forthcoming in the future.

By self-reporting, he avoided standing up at a press conference, becoming the lead story on the 5 o’clock news. He avoided the firefighter’s union calling a press conference and denouncing the fire chief for a double standard because he disciplined the firefighters involved in the movie scandal. Most importantly, we didn’t see the fire chief’s office release a statement that they wouldn’t talk about it because it was a personnel issue.

So those of you who are EMS managers with the potential for a crisis to develop around your department or career, take a lesson from Cummings and get ahead of the crisis. Cummings took a potentially devastating story that could have ruined his career and acted in a defensive mode.

He set an example for others to follow: It’s never too late to reconcile a wrong and show leadership. JEMS

This article originally appeared in January 2012 JEMS as “Ahead of the Crisis: Break the story yourself.”