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Building Relationships as the Public Information Officer

Within our city government, each city department has a designated department PIO as well as a City PIO and communications department.

I recently completed two Public Information & Media Relation seminars for Public Information Officers (PIOs) at Firehouse Las Vegas and the annual Las Vegas Fire & Rescue (LVFR) PIO Seminar and had the chance to talk with a few PIOs from across the country. Some of them worked at major incidents such as the wildland fires in Southern California, Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami is Southeast Asia. One thing they all referred to was that PIOs need to prepare for major incidents before they occur. One of those items is communications between PIOs of other agencies.

I found this to be extremely beneficial when I was the Fire & Emergency PIO for the Atlanta Fire Department during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. For years, the public safety PIOs of the metropolitan Atlanta area met once a month for lunch. During the lunch, in which members of the media were also invited, we discussed events during the past month and we usually picked one of the PIOs to profile their department. By the time the Olympics started, all of us (at the federal, state, county and local level) knew each other on a first name basis.

You don't have to get as formal as meeting for lunch each month, but one thing I would recommend is to at least sit down and talk with the other PIOs on a one-on-one basis. Exchange information such as telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and discuss how you would handle various incidents. For instance, Las Vegas Fire & Rescue is the primary emergency medical provider for motor vehicle accidents in Las Vegas. Many times the accident can be severe enough that it attracts media attention. If the incident becomes a large one, the PIOs from both Fire & Rescue and Metro Police will respond.

Our agreement is that police will always handle media inquiries when it comes to motor vehicle accidents. But if the media wants information about the techniques that were used in the rescue, then the Fire PIO will address it. The same is with drug lab fires, we made an arrangement that police will handle all media inquiries when it comes to fires in structures that are associated with a drug lab. In return, if there are any calls dealing with rescue or hazmat, police know that Fire & Rescue will handle the media.

Within our city government, each city department has a designated department PIO as well as a City PIO and communications department. We have set up an e-mail group within the city of all the PIOs. City leaders, such as the Mayor, City Manager, City Council members and city department heads are also included in the e-mail group. When anyone within the city gets a media inquiry, we notify the group as a whole and designate who will be lead for any future media inquiries. If I respond on large incidents or extra alarm incidents, I e-mail the group from the incident, so if anyone at city hall gets calls from the media, they know what is going on. I also let them know if I am able to handle the media, or if the event is larger than I can handle and I need assistance from other city department PIOs or to activate the city's Joint Information Center. This way everyone within the organization is saying the same thing.

When I issue media releases, I make sure that in addition to the media getting the releases that I also send one to every member of the department by e-mail. I also send one to the city public information notification group and a number of other agency PIOs. This way everyone is aware of what is going on and if there are media inquiries later, everyone is up to date on the latest information.

Take the time to visit the other PIOs at their office and ask for tours of their emergency operations centers if they have one. This way if you are asked to meet with them after hours or during an emergency, you know exactly where to go and how to gain access.

Along with getting to know the other PIOs, make sure you know who you work with in the media. Make arrangements to meet with the various media outlets. Give tours of your facilties and ask if you can get a tour of theirs. Learn the layout of the newsroom, get a feel of how things run and trade information such as telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and most important: deadlines. Your relationship with the media should be intimate enough that you know most of the reporters and people on the assignment desk on a first name basis.

I try to make it to the various media places at least once every few months. I have left them with business cards, information sheets and map books that we use in our department. This way a line of communications is established and then maintain it by frequent visits.

So while you got the time, start to build your contacts. It is a lot easier before an event than it is during one.

Tim Szymanski is the Fire - Public Information Officer for Las Vegas Fire & Rescue. As the Fire-PIO he is in charge of public information, public relations, fire safety education, Citizens Fire Academy and the Las Vegas Fire Corps program. He is also in charge of photo and video services and manages the "Fire Channel" which provides cable educational services to over 50 fire stations of five fire departments in Southern Nevada. He has been in the fire service for 35 years serving in every position from firefighter to fire chief. Nearly 20 of those years have been working with the media. He was the Fire-PIO for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. He is a nationally known speaker on media relations and is now teaching public information and media relations at area colleges in Las Vegas and host a seminar each year in Las Vegas for Fire-PIOs. He is also a Fire-Photojournalist, much of his work has been seen on various TV programs and in trade magazines. Please visit Tim's website at www.Fire-Pio.Com. Or contact Tim at