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.

Any release of information should be in a "media release" format (sometimes referred to as a statement) and distributed among staff so everyone has the same information and only that information is released. Usually the chief of the department or a high ranking official of the department or agency will make an announcement using the release. After the preliminary information is released, it will fall back on the PIO to do the follow up and handle inquires and future releases.

Releasing the Names of Victims

It has always been my procedure not to release names to the media. If it is a fire related death, I have always let the coroner or medical examiner's office release the name. This is for several reasons. First, names should never be released unless the next of kin has been notified. Today's world is much more complicated and who the next of kin can be a difficult task to determine and could have legal complications. The coroner or medical examiner will not issue a death certificate, which is the legal document to pronounce the victim is deceased, until the next of kin is notified. Since they are doing the follow up and have determined who the person is "officially," I let them release it. I have worked incidents where the person's name changed several times during the investigation before it was determined what the legal name was. Had I prematurely released the incorrect name, my reputation as a PIO could have been damaged.

If it involves a member of the department, the chief of the department should make the determination of when the name should be released. This should be done along with family members of the deceased. While this is going on, the PIO should be gathering information about the deceased member such as when they were made a member of the department, job title, duties, past awards, and the like. Many times a photo is used by the media. The PIO should try to get one ready; this may involve talking with the family to see if they have a preference on what type of photos should be used. If your department has an "official" photo, then that photo should be used.

Working an Incident with a Fatality

While working an incident which involves fatalities, your media area should be in a remote area away from the public and most personnel. This way, things that you report to the media can not be overheard by bystanders. If it involves a family member who was not aware of a fatality, they could be overwhelmed.

You should try to keep family members or friends of the deceased away from the media while you are in control of the incident. One reason may be the family or friends do want to be interviewed by the media and they would like their privacy. Another reason is if they start to give interviews, the ones that didn't get an interview will insist on it and if they don't get it, they will blame the PIO for not cooperating or favoring certain media. PIOs can not advise anyone not to talk to the media as that right is protected by the Constitution of the United States. But PIOs can control situations to ensure the family and friends' privacy is protected and if they wish to talk to the media, to ensure that it is done in an orderly manner.

Reporting the Cause of Death

In most cases causes of death will not be determined until the death certificate has been issued by the coroner or medical examiner. Although PIOs should never speculate, some information that has been approved by investigators and the incident commander can give the media and public insight into what caused the death and to reduce the possibility of rumors. For instance, if it appears the person died of smoke inhalation to investigators, a statement such as "the official cause of death will be determined by the Coroner's Office, but it appears to investigators that smoke inhalation may be the cause." The statement advises that the official cause will be determined later but investigators have somewhat of an idea but have not determined the exact cause. This gives you an opportunity to change it if something comes up during the autopsy such as the real cause of death was a gun shot wound or blunt force trauma and the fire was used to conceal the crime.

Also if items or devices (such as an appliance or electric wiring) fails or someone's action may have been the cause of death, statements to that effect should not be released unless it can be backed up with documentation such as investigator reports or the fire run report. Many times, deaths can lead to a lawsuit and the PIOs statements will certainly be used in court. If it can not be documented or substantiated by your department, it should not be used.