Editor’s note: In celebration of Sunshine Week, I’ve asked journalists from around the country to tell me how they use public records in their reporting.
I-Team: Seeing Through the Smoke
After the death of a 53-year-old D.C. man, the News4 I-Team investigated ambulance delays and why it is taking so long for D.C. Fire & EMS to answer questions about long response times.
The DC Fire and EMS Department is one of the most troubled agencies in our area. As we discovered, people were dying as they waited for critical equipment to respond, prompting the fire chief and the union president to throw out statistics and quotes in an effort to blame each other. But no one really knew what was going on inside DC FEMS because the agency had a long history of never responding to FOIA requests.
As a result of our one and half year legal battle and resulting series “Seeing Through the Smoke: The DC FEMS Investigation,” the DC government created a new “FOIA Ombudsman” and finally filled the empty DC FEMS FOIA Officer position.
The battle began after we received a tip there were serious paramedic shortages inside DC FEMS. We filed a detailed, multi-part FOIA request for documents that should always be made public, including staffing numbers, salaries and the number of paramedics who had quit in recent years.
For more than a year, DC FEMS ignored this and our subsequent FOIA requests for additional information, including 911 recordings and the response time database.
We considered filing a lawsuit. But it could have taken years. Meanwhile, a widow called our tipline asking us to help her get answers about why it took so long for DC FEMS to arrive at her home after her husband stopped breathing.
At the same time, DC FEMS was becoming embroiled in an increasingly ugly and very public fight with its union – with both sides throwing out unverified statistics and claims.
Recognizing the importance of this FOIA fight, and that there was no reason why these documents shouldn’t be made public, we asked our corporate legal team to help us. Our team started legal correspondence not only with the fire chief but also the mayor and DC Councilmembers who oversaw DC FEMS operation and FOIA procedures.
As a result, our FOIA fight became a topic of a DC Council hearing, where DC FEMS admitted under oath they had just thrown our FOIAs into a box and ignored them. As we ramped up our legal push behind the scenes, we aired PART ONE about the man who died while waiting for a paramedic to come to his assistance and our on-going FOIA fight.
As a direct result of these combined efforts, the DC government created a new FOIA Ombudsman position and to finally, after sitting empty for many years, hire a FOIA officer for DC FEMS. Within one month of our first story airing, and after additional negotiating, the documents started to trickle in.
All of the major media organizations in Washington, DC had done stories on DC FEMS. But they all relied on conflicting interviews with the chief and the union. We were the ONLY media organization to ever get information through FOIA, and as a result, we were able to show in PART TWO that both sides weren’t telling the truth. We were the only ones who were able to finally report how many paramedics were truly on staff and what that impact really meant for people at home. Using Document Cloud, we posted on our website all of the documents we received and annotated them to help our viewers understand what they were reading.
We went even farther in PART THREE, when we showed that the “response times” used by the fire chief in interviews with the Washington Post and other media organizations (including our own) were manufactured numbers. By using data we obtained through FOIA and computer-assisted reporting, we were able to show that many of the response times in the agency’s data were wrong and the real response times were at least one to three minutes longer than the chief claimed.
Thanks to Tisha Thompson for sharing her story. To get updates on what journalists I’m featuring during Sunshine Week, follow me on Twitter @RecordsGeek. If you are a journalist and would like your public records story featured on this blog, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- SUNDAY: David S. Fallis, investigative writer/reporter at The Washington Post
- MONDAY: Alex Richards, data & investigations reporter at Chicago Tribune
- TUESDAY: Peter Eisler, investigative reporter, and Barbara Hansen, data journalist, at USA TODAY
- WEDNESDAY: Becca Aaronson, health care & data reporter at The Texas Tribune
- THURSDAY: Kate Martin, Tacoma City Hall reporter at The News Tribune