Verizon vs. the Needham Fire Department

Let's play a game called "Who are you going believe?"

The question at issue is whether - or not - there was a minor fire Aug. 8 in a house on Pine Grove Street in Needham, Mass., caused by a Verizon employee drilling through an electrical main while performing a service installation. Everyone agrees that whatever happened - or didn't happen - was indeed the fault of the Verizon employee; it's "fire or no fire" that is at issue. (Don't miss the updates below ... or Wednesday's Round 2 here.)

Yes, the question is odd on its face: I mean either there was a fire or there was not a fire; not much room for differing interpretations here.

Yet differing interpretations we do have ... and hence the need to play our little game.

On one side of the disagreement we have John Bonomo, a public relations professional for Verizon, who on Friday evening posted a comment to this blog denying that there was a fire: "Unfortunately, (the fire) story differs quite a bit from the version of the Verizon staffers on the scene. Here it is: One of our new techs was installing a triple play at a Needham home (they're selling like hotcakes, btw). When drilling a hole for the Optical Network Terminal, he accidentally hit an electrical wire, knocking out power to the house. Our bad, but no smoke, and no fire. Out of an overabundance of caution (always a good thing) the local fire department was called. The FD cut a hole in side of house where the drilling took place to expose the area and check for a fire. There was none."

Bonomo lodged the same concern with the Needham Times, a local paper whose reporter, Steven Ryan, filed the initial report that sparked my interest in the story, so to speak.

On the other side of the disagreement we have Al DeIulio, deputy fire chief of the Needham Fire Department. When I spoke to DeIulio last Friday and asked him about "the fire on Pine Grove Street," he told me that the damage was minor and that the Verizon technician was "lucky he's not dead."

Deputy Fire Chief DeIulio did not, at least to the best of my recollection, say anything about the fire on Pine Grove Street lacking both fire and smoke. I didn't ask directly, mind you - "Did the fire on Pine Grove Street produce fire and/or smoke?" - but it seems to me that might have been worth volunteering by DeIulio given the specific nature of my inquiry ... and had it been true.

But perhaps Deputy Fire Chief DeIulio simply misunderstood me when I said "the fire on Pine Grove Street."

Today, however - out of an overabundance of caution (always a good thing) - the Needham Times reporter doubled back to DeIulio and asked if there was any truth to Verizon's contention that there was no fire at the fire on Pine Grove Street. I had contacted the paper earlier and asked that they let me know if any correction proved necessary.

It has not.

"If there's flames, there's fire," Deputy Fire Chief DeIulio said to reporter Ryan, demonstrating once again that public relations professionals need approximately 20 words to every one required by regular people to tell their side of any story.

Ah, yes, back to the game. Who are you going to believe given that we have diametrically opposed stories here?

We could believe public relations professional Bonomo, who did, after all, discuss the matter with "Verizon staffers on the scene." After all, the company has copped to whatever happened being their fault, they've promised to foot the bill for whatever repairs are necessary, and anyone who wants to use this blog to suggest that a public relations professional might spin a story to the advantage of his or her employer will have to first reckon with me.

Or, we could believe Deputy Fire Chief DeIulio, who based on his title alone would appear to possess a certain degree of expertise regarding what does or does not constitute a fire.

To recap: multi-billion-dollar company facing obvious public relations mess and possible lawsuit?

Or plainspoken deputy fire chief?

As my wife, Julie, just noted, Deputy Fire Chief DeIulio has no ax to grind, unless you want to count the one he uses to chop holes in buildings that careless telephone company employees set on fire.

So my money at this moment has to be on Deputy Fire Chief DeIulio. Call me crazy.

Doesn't mean he's necessarily right, mind you. Even experienced deputy fire chiefs can make an honest mistake and if such turns out to be the case in this instance you can be sure it will be noted.

But here's all I'm saying for certain: If you're a public relations professional and you're going to sully the blog of a professional journalist with a haughty "Hey, you screwed up" note ... make sure you're right first.

I'm just sayin'.

(Update: We have another eye-witness account, albeit second hand. An acquaintance tells me that he lives in the vicinity of Pine Grove Street and that his wife reports being there as the incident unfolded ... and seeing smoke.)

(Update 2: We now have an official statement from the fellow's wife: "I was one of 50 people there watching gray smoke billowing from the electric meter panel." ... Seems like game, set, match.)

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