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While every PIO should have direct access to the chief, the key voice of the department is almost always the chief. This becomes critically important in terms of the department's strategic plan and in addressing major departmental issues and crises. The chief must have a very clear understanding of the impact of departmental issues on the public and the potential importance of his or her personal, command presence in public. Some chiefs do this naturally in the nature of the leadership position, others may rely more on the PIO.
Former Assistant Chief Jon Hansen was the voice and face of the Oklahoma City Fire Department after the terrorist bombing in 1995 and the F5 tornado in 1996. However, Jon worked closely with Chief Gary Marrs to make certain that the position reflected the chief's direction. Jon was a captain on an engine company when he was tapped to become PIO. His career path demonstrates the direction and importance of the evolving position.
There are also excellent civilian PIOs who may enter a department laterally, with excellent leadership, communication and marketing skills to complement a passion for the fire department and the desire to be in public service. Such civilians with a love and commitment to the fire service understand the needs and direction of their own department, as well as the vital impact and contribution the media and marketing can make to the department.
One such person was Steve Jensen. The PIO position in Phoenix developed through the support and direction of Chief Alan Brunacini when he hired Jensen from a local news station. Steve developed the position to become a national model, well ahead of its time. Steve's position grew to become assistant to the chief for public affairs. Steve was so committed to the department and the position that he became the voice and face of the Phoenix Fire Department. Steve developed the position to include community affairs as well as public education. Deputy Chief Bobby Kahn has built on the foundation Steve created to make an even stronger and more widespread position of influence.
Whether the PIO is civilian or line officer, any effective public information program must have a very strong, market-oriented chief. This is vital for the departmental strength needed to successfully conceive and implement a long, sustained program. In all of my observations this axiom is true almost without exception. In fact, in smaller departments, the chief many times plays the major role in public information activities, whether at the scene of an incident or in a public forum.
Other larger departments with excellent public information programs and leaders include:
Tualitin Valley, OR, Fire District. Tim Birr has a national reputation as an excellent public affairs chief. His chief, Jeff Johnson, has a solid grounding in marketing and customer service, so he understands the vital importance of the position.
Las Vegas Fire & Rescue. Tim Szymanski has held the position of PIO for a number of years. Tim noted that he consistently sends press releases, photos and video to the press. Sometimes, he shoots the videos himself, providing them to the media when they cannot cover an incident or event - many times, that provides coverage the department probably would not have received.
Three years ago, Las Vegas was able to hire over 100 firefighters and build five stations in addition to purchasing a fleet of trucks. A tax initiative provided the funding. Consistent media focus on the positive image of the department was a major reason for the success of the initiative.
A review of the Las Vegas website noted approximately five to six impact headlines from a couple of heroic "saves," a story about how an automatic sprinkler saved a business that was closed and unoccupied to a new station opening for the public and an explanation of why the department's Class 1 ISO rating is so important. The site also provides contacts for speakers to groups on fire protection issues.