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.

One favor that I had to ask the media several years ago involved a motor vehicle accident involving fire with multiple fatalities. The accident occurred in downtown Atlanta during the morning rush hour when traffic was bumper to bumper. A car traveling in one of the high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes stalled and came to a stop. The car had six individuals in it and before any of them could exit the vehicle, it was rear ended by a car traveling at a high rate of speed. The impact caused the car to explode and become fully involved. Four of the occupants could not exit the burning vehicle in time and burned inside the car.

The scene was a gruesome one and in sight of several thousand people on the heavily traveled highway and from high-rise office buildings along the roadway. The medical examiner made the decision to have the car immediately loaded on a flat bed truck and taken to a remote location to conduct his examination. After arriving at the remote location, he asked me if I could persuade one of the media with a camera to assist him by videotaping the investigation. I asked several media people that were there and one volunteered. He videotaped the entire examination and when it was over, he handed the tape over to the medical examiner. He said he was there only to tape the hearse as it was leaving the remote area. The medical examiner was extremely thankful for their assistance in this unusual situation.

My advice in this area is if the media is doing their work and it is legal, they should be permitted to do so. Asking them not to do it will complicate matters and possibly cause hard feelings.

Learning from Past Incidents

Here are two other situations I encountered that other Fire-PIOs may face, as I did.

I was dispatched at 3:00 a.m. to a multiple-fatality mobile home fire involving small children. When I arrived on scene I was told that three boys, ranging in age from five years to 13 years of age, had died in the fire due to a space heater. There were no parents at home at the time of the fire. This was in a low income mobile home park, neighbors said that the parents worked at night and the 13-year-old would care for the boys while the parents were at work. The investigation quickly concluded and it was ruled accidental. None of the neighbors knew much about the parents and they did not know where they worked. Since the mobile home was completely destroyed, there was no information available to help us to figure out who and where the parents were.

At 5:00 a.m. all of the local television stations had live trucks on the scene, I was the only representative of the fire department left on scene, everyone else had cleared. I completed several interviews and figured I would be on scene with the media until 8:00 a.m. when most stations concluded their morning news shows.

At about 7:00 a.m. it dawned on me that the parents might show up while the media was there and no sooner did I think about it, did it happen. While on live television, the parents came home to find their home completely destroyed. They did not speak English, so I found a neighbor who could translate for me and we went into a neighbor's trailer where I had to break the news to the parents that their three boys had died in the fire.

Since PIOs are left on the scene possibly for hours to conduct interviews, situations like this are possible. You should be prepared.

In another situation our department had a technical rescue in progress on the 70th floor of a downtown high-rise hotel. An elevator technician had become entangled in some cables that had weights on them and he was dangling in the atrium of the hotel, 70 floors above the main reception area. I went to the 70th floor to check on the progress of the rescue and firefighters told me they were confident that he would be rescued within 15 minutes.

When I went outside to the command post, an army of live trucks and media had arrived on scene and they were breaking regular programming to tell about the event. The rescue took longer than anticipated and we had worked into the main evening news broadcast of the 5 o'clock hour.

At 5:30 p.m. as I was just to give a live update to several of the media, the chief's aide walked up behind me and whispered in my ear that the man had fallen and was dead. Seconds later we were live. I reported that the rescue was still in progress and we were doing everything we could to save the worker. At the same time I was giving the interview, I kept thinking in the back of my mind that this man probably had family and they were watching to see how things were going.