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.

As soon as the interviews concluded, I immediately went to the rescue floor to get a report and was told that the man had opened his rescue harness and fell. Firefighters could not explain why the man had opened the harness. I went to the main floor and witnessed where the man had fallen to confirm what I was told. It was approaching 6:00 p.m. and I knew that was the biggest audience of the evening news and I was starting to mentally prepare how I was break the news of the man's death.

At 6:00 p.m. we were the lead story, and on live television I made the announcement. The whole time I did it, I kept thinking how devastating it must have been for the man's family to find out that way. It was one moment that I will never forget. It had bothered me for a while. What helped a lot was a number of letters that was sent to the fire chief from the media saying that was one of the most difficult situations they had to cover and the way I handled it was the best that could have been done.

Talking about death is a very difficult thing. I would encourage anyone that has to do it to take advantage of any critical incident stress debriefing or counseling programs that are available in your department. If it bothers you, ask for help. Also there are a number of organizations that over training in this area, such as the Trauma Intervention Program (TIP). As a PIO, it is almost certain you will need to talk about death at some time or another. If it is a difficult situation, contact other PIOs and seek advice. And make sure you consult with your supervisor or the fire chief in the most difficult situations. If it is a difficult death, you will most certainly need their backing.

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