The Public Information Officer

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.

Why is public information so important to me? I have always felt that the public has always had a misconception of what fighting fires is really like. Let's face it; the television show Emergency during the 70's really changed the fire service. Many people, including myself were intrigued by the program and what we saw on the show is what we thought firefighting was all about. It was not until we got into training and responding to calls that we learned that the smoke is so thick you wouldn't be able to film inside a confined room or that things did not work out as smooth as on TV when working a code in the street. But Emergency as well as Back Draft and other TV shows and movies did do some good. They kept the fire service alive in the minds of people.

Most people do not receive direct services of the fire service. It has been estimated that only approximately five percent of the population request emergency assistance from the fire department. The rest of the population learns about the fire service either through television shows, movies or through the media.

I like to think of public information officers as teachers. They teach the general public, as well as the media; what the fire service is all about. And they will listen if someone is willing to take the time. And just like teachers, we must be innovative and interesting if we want our students to pay attention in class.

WHO USES PUBLIC INFORMATION

The general public is very interested in what goes on in the fire service. Countless requests for information are received each day, such as where is the closest fire station or fire hydrant or how many firefighters are on the fire department? The public may want to learn about fire prevention, juvenile fire setter programs or how to become a firefighter. A public information officer may not handle all the requests directly, but they will be many times the first contact and they will either get the information and reply or they will direct the requesting party to the right person.

The media is one of the largest requestors for public information. Usually to get information about an incident. This is most critical. Usually the information they get about an incident is either from their observations or through interviews from bystanders on the scene. The most accurate information about the incident is going to be provided by the PIO on scene.

Civic Organizations and other interested groups request speakers from the fire department to make presentations. Many of these organizations are sometimes looking for community projects to perform in their community. Law enforcement agencies have used civic organizations for many years to acquire equipment that they did not have funding for. Bullet proof vests, drug sniffing canines and dash mounted cameras for patrol cars were first donated to various police departments by civic groups before they became standard equipment on most police departments. Our own department was able to purchase a fire safety house strictly from civic group donations.

Insurance Companies request information on a routine basis. They either need the information for fire reports or to work on a safety project. Just like the donations I mentioned that your department could receive from civic groups, insurance companies are another source. If they can prevent fires or minimize the loss if a fire occurs, they are interested. The donation of several smoke alarms not only saves lives, but can get the company some public relations time on the local news and with the smoke alarm, maybe reduce their losses if a fire does occur because of the prompt notification.

Research Companies sometimes request public information for projects they are working on such as some life-saving piece of equipment or some new type of firefighting type of material.

Special Interest Groups such as the National Fire Protection Association or Safe Kids request information from the fire department for special projects they are working on. Usually it is requests for total number of specific type incidents or about a large program that your department may be working on.

Students' request information about the fire service. It has become a very popular subject for high school students and even at the college level. The higher the education level, the more complex the request usually is.

The Legal Community has become very interested over the past few years for public information from the fire service. Over the past few years I have had to give an increasing number of depositions to lawyers and courts for interviews I gave to the media, information that was going to be used in their cases. It is extremely important to ensure that the information that is disseminated is accurate because of this matter.

Other Government Agencies such as fire departments, law enforcement officials, hospitals, health districts and more request information from PIOs. An example: our department responded to an incident where a worker fell into a rock-crushing machine. We were called to extricate the victim from the machine and transport him to the hospital. Fortunately, he only had a fractured leg and was able to return to work a few months later. An article about the incident was in the morning paper the next day, only a small paragraph, but it caught the attention of a state agency that monitors worker safety and they were not notified. They called me to request information such as the date, time and location of the incident. That was all they needed to begin their investigation.

WHY IT IS IMPORTANT TO WORK WITH THE MEDIA

Most requests for public information will come from the media. I can remember several years ago when no one would talk to the media, police would prevent them from entering emergency scenes or you would hear "they never tell the story right anyways." If they are not reporting the story accurately, it is usually our own fault. We had the chance to tell them what was going on, but we usually ignored them. We should practice having someone available to explain to them what is going on during an incident or answer their questions during an interview. There are several reasons why we should work with the media, they include:

They will always be there. News reporting is big business and the one who can get the story out first is going to get the largest audience. The media goes to great lengths to find out what is going on. They have countless scanners in their newsrooms listening to every channel for leads. Even with the new 800 MHz systems, using "Trunk Tracker" scanners it is just as easy to listen to fire service as it was in the past. Programming trunk trackers (a special scanner that can be programmed to listen to the 800 MHz communications of public safety agencies) is difficult, but it can be done with patience and time. I know of a high school student in our community that is a wiz with radios and he has been paid by the media to program these radios. They can easily afford it.

They also pay people to listen to our channels to make sure that they don't miss anything. If the person calls in with a lead, they receive a bonus.

In our department, we provide the media with information they want to know through a paging system we developed. The media is notified by pager of the address and type of call when units are being dispatched. "We work at getting them to the incident."

They can provide information to the public in mass amounts, quickly. This is critical during times of emergencies. That can be seen after what happened on 9/11. The nation was in a critical state and the public demanded information. Not only during emergencies, the media can inform the public about burning bans, open houses, fire prevention programs or the testing of hydrants. This is one of the most vital functions of the media.

It makes government officials as well as the public aware of your department's activities. Many times during my career we tried to invite public officials such as the mayor or county commissioners to spend some time with the department to see what our department was doing. In almost every case, they either were too busy to make the commitment or the turn out was so small, it was a disappointment. It just doesn't routinely work.

A better method is to show your department off through the media. Government officials check the media on a daily basis or they have "clipping services" do it for them. Clipping services are businesses that will monitor the media and clip newspaper stories or media accounts of interest to their customer's requirements. What are they looking for? To see how many times "they" are mentioned in the news. They can get the pulse of the community through media accounts. Now that you know that is where they are checking everyday, you need to get your department on or in the news every chance you can.

The media can provide information and services for you. While working as the PIO for the Atlanta fire department, we were having a series of arson fires in vacant houses on the city's west-side. As the weeks passed, the number of fires increased in quantity and frequency. Early one morning one of those fires killed a homeless man that was sleeping inside a vacant house. The public was very concerned and it was the leading story on the news.

A few days after the fatal fire, I got a call from a reporter at one of the TV stations. She asked if she could provide the name of the person responsible for the fires, could they break the story? One of my cardinal rules is not to grant exclusives, but in this case it was a matter of life and death. After discussing it with our fire investigations division, the reporter arranged for a meeting with the informant. A few days later the man was located and arrested. Immediately the fires stopped, he was later tried and convicted of the arsons. And this was not the only incident. Frequently people will talk to the media before talking to authorities. Remember I mentioned we provide pages to the media, they were doing it in reverse, giving information to us that provided some significant leads.

The media can provide equipment you may not have. The media has some equipment that many departments do not have, such as special cameras, editing equipment and some have helicopters. How can that help? One day while working a large furniture store fire, the media sent several live trucks and a number of helicopters to the scene. The fire was large and the chief wondered if he could get a "bird's eye view" from the air. When I asked one of the stations if they could take the chief up in their helicopter, they said sure in exchange for an interview while he was up there. No problem, for a 30 second interview he stayed in the air for approximately 20 minutes. After that one instance, we were offered rides at numerous incidents in exchange for an interview.

The media has editing equipment that most departments can't afford. It is possible that they can provide a video about your department or create a special fire safety video for your department. The media is usually more than glad to do such projects, but most of the time no one ask them. It may involve some extensive work on your part, such as obtaining the props needed for the video and writing a script or a "story."

The media can be used to educate the public. As previously mentioned, the media can provide information to a large audience. This should be taken advantage of by providing fire safety and disaster preparedness information. A one-minute story on the evening news can educate thousands of people. Newspapers and magazines can also provide pictures and diagrams. Certain times of the years should be a priority, such as EMS Week in May and Fire Prevention Week in October. With some preparation and planning with the media, you could provide a weeks worth of education which could touch thousands of people.

It promotes the activities of your department. In the business world this is called "advertising." There is one major difference between the private sector and fire service when it comes to advertising: we usually can get it done for free.

If a leading car company is advertising a car on the evening news, they may have to pay thousands of dollars for a one minute commercial. If you manage to get your department on the news at the same time, you are literally getting thousands of dollars of free advertisement. What are you selling? Community safety and emergency response is something that is a top priority in every community. Check any poll of what means the most to people and it will always be their safety. You should make it an effort to get your department on or in the news every chance you can.

It doesn't matter what type of department you are whether you are volunteer, combination or professional full-time. Media relations are vital to your department.

What is a major concern of ANY department is funding and we have seen in the past few years that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to get the monies we need to keep our departments going.

Volunteer or subscription departments can express their need for new members or new equipment and full time departments could possibly prevent the closing of stations due to budget shortfalls by working with the media.

TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE MEDIA IN YOUR COMMUNITY

Every community has some type of media, whether it is a small weekly newspaper in a rural town or several TV, radio and print media in a large city. There is always some type of media to work with. And what if there isn't, create one. Putting together a department newsletter and distributing it to the community is always a winner. And it doesn't have to be complicated. Today with the use of computers and publishing software, you can create a professional looking newsletter with little effort. But if your department does not have a computer, use a word processor or even a typewriter. With a copier, you can still get the word out.

To work the media, you need know the different types.

Newspapers are the oldest form of media dissemination and found everywhere. Just about every community, big or small has some type of print media available. Actually working with smaller papers have always been my favorite. They are usually looking for a good story, do not have strict deadlines or guidelines and are easier to work with. In a small community, a typical house fire will probably be the headliner for the week, while in a large city a house fire would not even make the paper. Many large city newspapers will not run a fire story unless there is a critical injury or fatality and the damage must exceed $50,000. In smaller communities, the paper will usually list all the runs for the previous week if the local fire department provides that information. Just listing the date, time, type of call and a general location of the incident shows your community how busy your department actually is. And don't forget to list any drills or other special activities your department was involved in.

Radio is another favorite form of information dissemination. How many times do you hear someone say you should have a portable radio with extra batteries put away in case of an emergency? The radio has always been a good way to disseminate emergency information to the public. In the 60s two special frequencies on the AM dial, 640 kilocycles and 1240 kilocycles was used by Civil Defense for CONALRAD a network of radio stations across the United States. In the late 70s it was replaced with a new system, the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) which included TV stations along with radio stations. In the mid 90's EBS was replaced with the Emergency Alert System (EAS) which includes special alert receivers which can kept in the home or business to receive emergency information at the same time it is being sent to the media. Radio stations are a good source to spread the word about your activities. Many times they are looking for guests to be on their public service programs, which as usually aired on Sunday mornings. Get to know the people at your local radio station, you will pleased to find how cooperative they are.

Like everything else, radio is changing. Now there is satellite radio. Instead of losing your favorite radio station after driving a few miles from your community, you can now listen to the same radio station from the east coast to the west coast without interruption. But satellite radio does not provide the ability to provide local information in case of an emergency.

Television, Probably the most popular form of media. TVs can be found in almost every room of the house and at most businesses. What once was only a half hour news program in the morning, lunch, dinner and at 11PM is now replaced with "hours" of news everyday. A problem with television is cable and satellite programming, With over 100 channels now available in most areas, the chances of people watching local programming are reduced.

But there are also advantages to television; most cities have cable public or government access television channels. In our city we have a city government channel with a news program that is produced every two weeks. We have been able to get at least one item on almost every program they have produced over the past six years, that is almost 150 shows. In addition, we produced two hour-long specials about disaster preparedness that was shown several times over.

Website This is one way to get the information out about your department and over 6000 departments in the United States have taken advantage of this new medium. This is must for every department. The best part of the website is "you" control all the information on the website. It can be updated when needed and as frequently as you wish. Many departments have photos, safety tips, articles, maps and other interesting information on their websites. The secret to a good website is to keep it updated and change it frequently. People will loose interest in your website if it is the same or not updated.

Newsletters either from different organizations or companies, or you can produce your own. You may be able to write a fire safety article for one of your local utilities to be included in their newsletter or for a civic group. Many companies and businesses will also accept your work if you make it available. Another way is to produce your own newsletter. It does not have to be fancy with color photos. I use to put together a fire department newsletter that was written on a typewriter and copied on a copier machine. It was a hit in the community and people could not wait until the next one came out.

In my future sessions, we will review the following areas:

Qualifications of a Fire-Public Information Officer
Joint Information Centers - What are they, who needs them and how to operate one.
A Public Information Plan for EVERY department, a must
Media Relations at the Emergency Incident
Type of Interviews and How to Handle Them
Media Release - The official dissemination document
Other methods of getting the word out.

If you have any questions or comments, please call me at 702-229-0145 or e-mail me at tszymanski@ci.las-vegas.nv.us.

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