When I was in elementary school, there were two fields that I was most interested in to pursue as a career. One was public safety, either being a police officer or a firefighter. The other was the media. Little did I know that nearly 20 years later I would have the best of both worlds. I would be a Fire-Public Information Officer.
I started my career when I was 14 years old. I was a member of our local Civil Air Patrol Composite Squadron's Land Rescue Team. In addition to being a member of the team, I also was the Information Officer for the unit. I began writing articles for our weekly town newspaper; complete with photographs of events and missions the Civil Air Patrol was involved in. While a senior in high school, when most students were writing articles for the school newspaper or yearbook, I was writing articles for our town newspaper.
It was just after graduation from high school when an aircraft was taking off from the local airport where we lived, crashed into our home. None of us were home at the time. When I got back our driveway was full of fire trucks and other emergency vehicles. As I parked further down the street I could see that parts of the barn in our yard was missing and the remains of a burnt aircraft was against our house. Our Civil Air Patrol unit was quickly activated and given the assignment of protecting the crash scene by our local Sheriff's department. It was the next day when our local fire chief asked me if I would be interested in being a member of the fire department.
That was 32 years ago. Occasionally I would write articles for the local paper, but that faded away as I got involved with paramedic training and other fire service subjects. Eight years later I moved to Atlanta and became a member of the Gwinnett County Fire Department. Starting as a firefighter and working through the ranks to company officer, Gwinnett at the time was the fastest growing county in the United States. The size of the department almost doubled in less than four years and we went through a number of changes.
While being a company officer at one of the busier stations in the county, I was asked to take a temporarily assignment to assist a new fire chief that was just appointed to the department. They told me it would only be for 30 days to help orientate the chief to our department and county and I would be back in the station. That never happened.
After the 30 days was up, the new chief decided that I should stay longer. It was just a few weeks after that decision that we had a serious fire and there were several media inquiries about the fire. Procedure at the time was for one of the assistant chiefs to handle the media. The new chief thought the position should be handled by a person that could devote more time to working with the media, so he called me into the office and asked, "How would you like to be our Public Information Officer?" I never heard of that term in the fire service and neither did anyone else. When I tried to find information about being a PIO, none could be found. There were no classes or seminars available about media relations, I was on my own.
I remembered reading a previous issue of Firehouse magazine about a Public Information Officer for the Los Angeles Fire Department. So I wrote to LAFD and asked for any information about public information.
Within a few weeks I received a large envelope from Captain Tony DiDomenico, PIO for LAFD. He sent what ever LAFD had available at the time on procedures and the like, but the thing that stuck out the most in my mind was a note he stuck in the package, he wrote "Best of Luck with a great part of the Fire Service." I still have that note hanging in my office it was from 1984.
I have served in almost every position from firefighter to fire chief, along with being a paramedic, fire inspector and arson investigator during my career. But of all the positions I have filled, public information officer has always been my favorite.