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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Fire Alarm

I work for a railroad company which operates in the Govt Sector. The other day (12th July), there occurred a small accident on a prestigious superfast train at a station (New Bongaigaon), about 150 km away from our headquarters where I am posted. The generator car of the train which houses the equipments for generating power for the train caught fire. It was just an accident, nothing to be read between the lines and the fire was controlled quickly.
The incident was reported to me very casually by a senior officer. I was told that the fire was a minor one and was controlled with the on-board fire-fighting equipments. To emphasize the frivolous nature of the accident, I was told that not even the fire brigade was informed, which otherwise is a standard procedure. Soon the fire was extinguished and the train continued it's journey carrying about 800 people, I was told. At that time I was not aware that information provided to me could not even be termed half truth. But, as friends from media called up, I gave them this piece of information sounding very authentic and dismissive.
Next day morning I had to hung my head on shame to find a photograph in a news paper showing a fire brigade engine standing next to the train at the station. Later inquiries revealed that the on-board fire fighting equipments did not work and we had to call the fire brigade to control the fire. It took them about half an hour to control the fire! All the newspaper were graphic in detailing how ill prepared were we to tackle such a situation and how we tried to misinform. The news items were clearly laced with obvious bias of the reporters at being misinformed (by me).
This was an immensely avoidable Public Relations disaster. The unintended misinformation will probably be not taken personally by most of the journalist friends, but it sure will linger on in the back of their mind for quite some time. And this sure will affect my credibility built over the last ten years!
Coming to genesis of what went wrong, I believe that as an organization we had nothing to be ashamed of or afraid of from the incident because anyone sane will readily agree that accidents can happen despite the best of measures. But we failed to had proper safety measures in place and the equipment meant for fighting the fire failed. Obviously it was someone's failure. The authorities probably was trying to evasive and shy away from public eye. And thus, they lied.
I also believe that if we had honestly said what happened and showed enough concern over our failure, the journalists would have understood and appreciated. Their trust on whatever information we provide would have increased. They probably would have thought, well these people are telling the truth and it was definitely not in their hands to prevent the accident.
They would not have allowed their reporting of the incident to be biased against us and at the end of the day the benefit would have been ours. It is probably time we sound the fire alarm that a lie is a lie is a lie always and it is not going to help us in any way.

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