SPEAK UP: Keeping the Media Safe in Danger Zones

The number of ways news is gathered and reported has increased vastly since the heyday of big-city newspapers and major broadcast TV networks. What has not changed is the media’s willingness to go where the story is. This is not always safe; in fact...

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In 2002, then-Fire Prevention Battalion Chief Doug Lannon and I decided to develop training to provide fire safety education for all members of the media; i.e., reporters, photographers, editors, producers and managers. We brought the training directly to media outlets, dramatically increasing the number of people trained. We also felt this program would help develop a closer relationship between the media and CAL FIRE, increasing the media’s understanding of what CAL FIRE and the fire service as a whole do.

With no template or example to follow, we created a four-hour program designed to accomplish several objectives:

1. To provide an overall look at fires and safety while encouraging the media to enhance their safety.

2. Through an increased understanding of wildland fire behavior and operations, the media would improve their reporting and photography.

3. To help the media provide higher-quality reporting, which would better educate the public.

The program we developed used PowerPoint, video and handouts. Topics included a legal review (primarily the state’s media-access law), personal protection equipment, parts of a vegetation fire, wildland fire behavior, fireground injuries and fire shelters. Over the years, we improved the program to meet the needs of the media while reflecting changes in tactics, operations and safety issues facing the fire service.

Over the years, it has been made available as a turnkey operation to other CAL FIRE units. We provide the PowerPoint presentation, copies of our videos and masters of the handouts. Other CAL FIRE units localize the class for their media. Daniel Berlant, the CAL FIRE information officer at headquarters in Sacramento, takes a version of the class statewide for media that request it.

Some news organizations have videotaped the presentations for in-house training. In 2009, the NBC network in New York used a taped version to create a 90-minute intranet class for East Coast staff and stringers who might have occasion to cover major wildland fires. Last year, another edition was provided for NBC channel 4 in Los Angeles. It is indeed an honor that our material is being used in this way.

The class is available by sending an email to me at Bill.peters@fire.ca.gov.

Bill Peters

Unit Information Officer

Fire Prevention Specialist

California Department of

Forestry and Fire Protection

San Bernardino, CA

The writer has been public information officer for CAL FIRE since 1991, with 10 years of experience on Type I Incident Command Teams as a lead information officer. He also has been a TV and radio reporter, anchor and news director.

Aging Firefighters

Re: “Younger Volunteers Wanted,” For The Record, January 2012: It is paradoxical and perplexing to read of the NFPA’s legitimate concerns regarding both a declining and aging force of volunteer firefighters, while many politicians are advocating the reduction of retirement benefits for professionals, including working into their 60s. Obviously, the issue of aging firefighters is of legitimate concern for both volunteer and professional departments. And, if the current political climate toward professional firefighters continues, professional departments may eventually experience recruiting problems as well.

Many professionals, myself included, began their involvement with the fire service as volunteers, and have a better understanding and appreciation of volunteer departments than might be perceived. The problem of recruiting should have been anticipated by the late 1990s or 2000, after the publication of Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone and the academic paper from which it evolved. Putnam cited the declining numbers of members involved in fraternal and civic groups and youth and adult sports leagues (hence, “Bowling Alone”), referring to it as “America’s Declining Social Capital.”

“Social networking” takes on a different, even an electronic meaning today, than it did in an era of more abundant and younger volunteers. Many younger people congregate in “niche” groups of common interests, and it appears that volunteer firefighting is no longer one such interest.

All of us who have served as volunteers know well the importance of community and personal relationships, often not really so different from those which evolve in a paid municipal department. America’s increasingly transient, mobile workforce does not always lend itself to involvement in volunteer fire departments. The corporate climate too is likely to be less understanding of the volunteer who suffers a long-term, disabling injury or even to let that employee leave work to respond, as many of us were able to do.