Dealing with Death as the Public Information Officer

Make sure you have "all of the information" and it has been "confirmed" by a reliable source before you release anything.


Make sure you have "all of the information" and it has been "confirmed" by a reliable source before you release anything.

It will happen sometime in your duties as a Public Information Officer (PIO) - dealing with the subject of death. This might include talking with the media about a fatality which involves either a civilian or a member of the fire department. It is probably one of the more difficult tasks assigned to the PIO. Unlike other personnel who may leave the scene or be relieved, PIOs usually have to stay on scene, are asked about and have to talk about or explain the death for many days or even weeks after the incident.

Civilian deaths can occur in a number of ways. One thing that I keep in mind whenever I deal with death is to remember how I would want to hear about it if it involved a family member or a friend.

In this fast-paced media world, word travels at light speed. It is not unusual for people to be watching or hearing about an extrication of a severe vehicle accident or firefighters bringing out a fire victim while it is actually happening on live television.

What we need to remember is that the vehicles that are being shown on the TV can be viewed by a family member just as a house fire and the victims being brought out. How would you feel if you were watching the news and they break to show a multi-vehicle accident involving a school bus and you see it was the bus taking your children to a sporting event? It is not unusual for people to see or hear about these things through the media instead of being notified by "authorities."

First of all, make sure you have "all of the information" and it has been "confirmed" by a reliable source before you release anything. And when it involves casualties, it has to be reliable. Releasing erroneous information about an injury or death could ruin your reputation, regardless of how you received the information. Usually I will confirm it myself and if at all possible, in person. Many of my notifications come from the fire alarm office. Once notified, I check the computer to see what information is currently known via communications from the incident commander to the communications center. If I am unable to respond to the incident, I will then call the incident commander on the scene and confirm the details about the incident. It is most critical that you confirm and re-confirm information of this type before you release anything. If you are not sure about the information you received or you feel unsure, my advice would be to hold off until you are absolutely sure.

Dealing with a Departmental Death

This can be a line-of-duty incident or while the member was engaged in some other type incident while on or off duty. Here are the differences: Line-of-duty deaths will probably attract the most media attention especially if it occurred during an incident, such as a building fire, building collapse, drowning while performing a search or rescue, vehicle accident while responding to or while on a call, shootings, the list is endless. Other incident deaths is while the person was on duty but not involved in an incident, such as a heart attack while on duty or during a training exercise. Although just as tragic as a line-of-duty death, it will probably not attract as much media attention. Lastly is the member who died while off-duty. This can be of natural causes such as an illness or injury not related to department business, many times because personnel were involved in a motor vehicle accident in their private vehicles, involved in a sporting accident while on vacation or they have been battling a long time illness.

In all three cases proper notifications should be made according to your department's procedure on how to deal with these types of incidents. If your department does not have a procedure in place, I strongly recommend you develop and implement one. It goes much easier if you have a plan in place and deal with the event when it happens rather than trying to put something together at the last moment.

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