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.


Notification of death to family members/friends As the PIO there have been several times in my career I have had to tell family members or friends that someone close to them has lost their life. It is probably the most difficult task in the fire service.

Although there are people who are trained in this area or there are support agencies such as the American Red Cross or the Trauma Intervention Program (TIP), sometimes time will not allow the luxury of waiting for someone from one of those agencies to respond. Many times the PIO will be asked to break the news.

It should be done in a quiet place away from bystanders or the media. The PIO should be prepared that the party they are talking to will not take the news lightly and may become extremely distraught or may even be in denial.

Keep it simple. Don't give a lot of details. Do not place blame on anyone or anything. Offer your condolences and sympathy. Again keep reminding yourself of how would you feel if you were that person.

This can also apply if a person has suffered a great loss or maybe the loss of a pet. Many times a person who has lost everything due to a fire or other disaster will be extremely distraught. The loss of a pet can be just as traumatic as losing a family member.

Our department recently responded to an overnight house fire where the house was completely destroyed. Inside the house were two large dogs that could not escape in time. Neighbors told us that a woman lived alone with the two dogs and that she worked nights at one of the larger hotels in town. We were unable to locate her so there was no way to tell her about the dogs.

A few hours later she returned home and was devastated by the fire, but it was the loss of the dogs she could not handle. A media crew that was parked across the street to do a story about the fire called me at home and told me the woman was not taking it very well and maybe there was something I could do. As I drove back to the scene, I remembered that recently our family had lost a dog that we had for years. Both of my sons grew up with the dog and it went on our family vacations - it was another member of our family. When the dog passed away, all of us were emotionally moved. Remembering how that affected me made it easier to talk to woman when I got to the scene and I could relate to her feelings. Often times the PIO will have to be a compassionate, caring individual.

Controlling the Media at Fatal Incidents

It is almost certain that any time there is a death due to an accident or other incident that the fire department is handling, the media will be there also. Many times they will be taking photographs or video of the incident and victim. This usually upsets personnel on scene and they will ask me to ask the media to refrain.

If the media is on public property there is no way that pubic safety agencies can control what video or photographs are taken. There are ways to control it, such as put up barricade tape far enough that the media can not see the victim, vehicles or apparatus can be parked so it blocks the view or there are special devices which are used to block out the view, but this is rarely used.

One thing to remember is that the media may be shooting video or photographs of the victim, but usually it will only show a part of the victim or not enough that the victim could be identified. Most times it is usually of the body, either in a body bag or covered on a gurney while being loaded into the coroner's vehicle or hearse. Sometimes they may show a victim lying on the ground with a sheet over them or over a vehicle, with even a body part showing such as foot or hand sticking out. This should not be a problem.

It is important for the PIO to remember the media has a job to do also and their judgment on what to shoot should be respected. As the PIO you need to remember that you may need to ask the media for a favor so you want to keep your relationships on the positive side.