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Do the Write Thing

Fire departments risk burning bridges with online photos

Seven months ago, on a Wednesday, my phone rang just before 3 a.m. with a number I never wanted to see at that hour — my mother. From her front porch in Chittenango, she was watching news crews set up outside of a house fire that called in 14 fire departments from across Madison and Onondaga counties. The house was my aunt’s, a home that I spent much of my childhood in. I called in to work at a Rochester-area newspaper, hopped in my car and sped to Chittenango, grappling with the what ifs on the two-hour drive home, trying to imagine the total loss that had occurred that morning.

Fast forward a few months and I’m working as a reporter, covering the very fire departments who responded to my aunt’s home. I visit their Facebook pages and websites to see what they’re up to — I fully support showcasing the good things fire departments are doing.

Imagine my surprise when I go on an eastern Onondaga County fire department’s web page and I see, front and center, a blaring photo of my aunt’s house.

Then I see another. And another. And the final straw, in mid-December, when a delayed photo post on the Madison County Fire Department’s Facebook page appeared.

The photo was taken from the middle of Route 5, early in the morning of June 22. Five firefighters sit on the edge of a rose garden that boasts a Catholic statue. Steady streams of water from hundreds of feet of hose pour on the two-story house while flames rip through the balloon-frame structure. The neighborhood’s filled with smoke from the visible flames on either end of the house.

I looked at the photo and started crying. I showed my mother, but she couldn’t look. The photo was raw, and you could tell it was from the early hours of the fire — firefighters were on scene well into the late morning. Beneath the photo, an individual “liked” it. A single thumbs-up to an unimaginably bad day for the Seef family.

For those firefighters responding, it was a fully-involved structure fire -- a proud moment where volunteers came together and worked to save a person’s home. Nothing but a hard fight was given by all fire departments involved, and the entire family is thankful, each day, for the hours of tough fire fighting they had to do for the huge, 200-year-old house.

But, the flames in the front of the house were just that - flames - to firefighters and onlookers. To family, it was flames ripping through my cousin’s bedroom, where her two toddlers would typically have been sleeping. Thankfully, they weren’t home that night. There was no explanation that a 20-year-old female and her parents made it out OK; an explanation that their dog and cat were lost. An explanation that the home had been in the family for the better part of the 20th century, and that the current owner grew up there, as did her kids, and her kid’s kids. Wedding photos, children’s photos, family heirlooms and furniture were all lost. That story went untold.

Instead, the story said “Structure Fire, 6/22/11,” with a thumbs-up below.

I am having a hard time grasping why a fire department would post such a poignant photo in a public forum. As a journalist, we often post moving photos, but we do it with context — a simple explanation of the story behind the fire. I support and encourage fire departments to be recognized for the hard work that they do. I am incapable of doing their job, and I admire each man and woman for putting their own lives on the line. I recognize sharing photos of good work by a department is a way to show taxpayers the good job they’re doing for a good value, or a good way to showcase the department saving lives.

But I deeply, strongly urge fire departments to come to terms with the new digital age. New mediums mean a message is being broadcast to a bigger audience. Monitoring the information you put online - and providing context for such - could go a long way. You never know who may be looking.

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