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Things happen every day. They can happen almost anywhere on the planet – a major air disaster, train derailment, hazardous materials incident, natural or man-made disaster, terrorism attack or conflagration. Within an instant, your small town in the middle of nowhere or your major metropolis can suddenly become the focus of worldwide headlines.
News travels at the speed of light today. Within minutes, an incident in your community could be known around the world, thanks to the help of social media. Once the word gets out, within just a few hours, your town could be filled with satellite trucks, helicopters flying overhead and hundreds of media personnel to cover the story. Not to mention the public, attracted to the area to see firsthand what is going on.
Just as we pre-plan how to handle a fire in a building, a mass-casualty incident or a special event in town, we all need to have a plan on how to handle requests for public information. The plan should cover all the areas from a simple request for a copy of a fire report up to a major incident press conference.
Each department must decide what it considers to be “information.” First, check your local codes, ordinances and laws. All states have public information laws, but requirements differ. Then there is the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This is a federal law that covers how the public can request information. More information about FOIA can be found at www.foia.gov.
There is also a procedure on how to handle the release of medical information. This is covered in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Civil Rights by the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act of 1996, better known as HIPAA. This protects the privacy of people involved in medical incidents. This law is very restrictive and has consequences for those who violate it (see www.hhs.gov/ocr/privacy).
I highly recommend that you seek advice from your department’s legal representative to see if your public information policy adheres to local, county, state and federal information laws and requirements. The policy should include who will handle public information requests. Public information requests do not only come from the media. Some others that will request information include the public, government officials, civic groups, students, insurance companies and special-interest groups, to name a very few. If someone calls your department and has a question, that is a request for public information.
Many times, the person who will handle that request is the designated public information officer (PIO). In larger departments, a special division may handle the request. For instance, a person requesting a copy of a fire report is asking for information. In a smaller department, that request will probably be handled by the PIO. A larger department that handles multiple calls a day may have a separate records division that processes requests for fire reports, inspection records, court documents and the like. The person responsible for these requests should be specified in the department’s information policy.
The duties and expectations of the PIO should be a part of the policy. That way, the PIO knows what is expected of them and how they should handle the various types of requests. Many times, fire chiefs and city officials may want to handle certain requests themselves. The PIO should assist them as needed, but will let them take the lead. On large-scale incidents, some communities may require that the city manager or county commissioner take the lead. Again, the PIO will assist as needed.
Other areas that should be addressed in the policy are how to handle media requests, what is considered business hours, the use of photos, videos and the recording of sound at incidents, requests for 911 tapes, how to conduct an interview, when to activate a Joint Information Center (JIC) and any special local requirements by your local government.
Once the plan is developed, it should be reviewed regularly and changes made as needed. You should have your department’s legal representative review it to see that it remains in compliance with the law. Lastly, it should be made available and reviewed by all the members of the department – especially the PIO – so everyone knows what the plan entails.
TIMOTHY R. SZYMANSKI has been in the fire service for 41 years and is the Public Education & Information Officer (PEIO) for Las Vegas, NV, Fire & Rescue. He has worked in every position from firefighter/paramedic to fire chief. Szymanski is a Nevada-certified Fire Service Master Instructor and holds national and state certifications in many areas of the fire service. He has received numerous awards, including the 2008 Liberty Mutual National Firemark Award for Community Education and the Community Service Award from the Nevada Broadcasters Association. He was the Fire & Emergency PIO during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. His website is www.firepeio.com and Twitter at firepeio.