Handling Information At Emergency Incidents

One of the main duties of a fire department public information officer (PIO) is to disseminate information. To do that correctly, the PIO must gather information and ensure it is accurate. When the media cover a story, they need to know who, what, when, where, why and how. When you gather information, you also must address these areas.

To keep track of the information I gather, I write it down in a notebook. This way, I have a record that I may use again in the future. I use a “reporter’s notebook,” which can be purchased at any office supply store. I keep my notebook on a “citation holder,” the same type of citation holder police officers use to write traffic citations. It is made of metal, is the same size as the reporter’s notebook and has a compartment to store extra pens, notes you need to have on scene and business cards to give to the media.

Collecting information

Information gathering starts when you first receive notification of an incident. Information I immediately write down includes the address of the incident and the time and nature of the call. This way, when reporters request information while you are enroute to the scene or just after you arrive, you have some information to provide.

Once on scene, meet with the incident commander to find out what you can. You can also talk to crews on scene, bystanders, witnesses, occupants involved, medical personnel and fire investigators. Important information to gather includes:

• Time and date of the incident

• Incident or report number

• Address of the incident (verify this; many times, the address given at dispatch is the caller’s address and not the correct address of the actual incident)

• Nature of the call

• Name of the business, building, subdivision or complex

• Who is involved

• Type of building (single-family residential, mobile home, outbuilding)

• Size of the building (one story, two story, square footage if possible)

• Resources are being used (number of apparatus, number of firefighters)

• Number of alarms

• Whether fire safety equipment played a role (smoke alarms, sprinklers, fans)

• Any information about pets if involved

• Cause of the incident if determined

• Damage estimates and/or property saved

• Support agencies (American Red Cross, Salvation Army)

• Casualties to civilians (injuries, fatalities)

• Casualties to fire service personnel

• Number of people displaced

The PIO receives and disseminates information while working an incident. Sometimes, witnesses or even the media will provide you with information that is critical to the incident and that information should be provided to the incident commander. I’ve worked incidents in which the media provided information to me on scene that assisted fire investigators in determining a cause or arresting arson suspects.

Check your facts

As a professional, ensure that all information is absolutely correct to the best of your ability. Don’t rely on second-hand information or hearsay. Ask questions and check things out yourself. Many times, that means walking around the incident, making observations personally and asking questions.

Make sure confidential information is kept where no one can access it who is not authorized. I usually write on the other side of the page where I am putting my main information as outlined above so it cannot be seen. I also keep a rubber band on the bottom of my reporter’s notebook so the page I am working on cannot flip over to reveal confidential information. Never leave your notebook anyplace where someone else can access confidential information. When the incident has terminated and you return to quarters to draft your media release or give interviews later, you have all the information you need at your fingertips.

I have kept all of my reporter’s notebooks and often reference them to gather information about past incidents. I have been subpoenaed to appear in court or asked to give dispositions because of statements I made in interviews or at the scenes of incidents. Many times, those requests come months or even years later and it is difficult to remember what went on. By having your notes, you can refresh your memory.

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.