Communication Training Aids Agencies in Crisis


Skip Kirkwood knows firsthand. He's the chief of the department which is headquartered in Raleigh, N.C.

"I think I handled it OK, but I realized that I could really use some training in crisis communication," said Kirkwood to a group who attended EMS Expo in Dallas, Texas, on Thursday. That's why he developed a class called "Chief Officer Survival: Crisis Communications for Chief EMS Officers."

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While Kirkwood's presentation was aimed at EMS providers, the information he offered applies to all public service agencies, including police and fire.

"It's not a question of what if, but when you find yourself in a crisis," Kirkwood said, defining a crisis as anything that has the potential to negatively reflect on your agency. It can be something as minor as a fender bender with an emergency vehicle or as serious as the negligent death of a patient or the loss of a laptop computer.

"That was a crisis that kept on giving," Kirkwood said, noting that it was in the local headlines for 10 months and that it took a large chunk of his budget to pay for two years of identity protection for 12,000 people.

The laptop was never recovered and there was no evidence that any of the information stored on it was ever compromised or used for criminal activity, he said. He added that he thinks it may have been an inside practical joke that got way out of hand and too big for someone just to return the computer.

"I think it was heaved in a Dumpster someplace," he said. Nevertheless, the lessons learned were valuable and Kirkwood passed them along in a presentation that relied heavily on case studies and news clip videos.

Mincing no words about his contempt for most press, Kirkwood compared the press to pit bull dogs bent on getting the story and "wild beasts who need to be fed every four hours or so."

"When a local newspaper calls up about an incident, or a crisis, it's not the time to start thinking about what to do," Kirkwood said. "When a crisis happens, you need to get in front of it quickly."

When the laptop was lost, Kirkwood got some bad advice and didn't call the police to report the disappearance of the computer. An advisor in his circle suggested that calling police would create a public record, but if there was no public record of the incident, perhaps the computer would just show up and no harm would be done.

"Lesson number one is don't try to keep anything secret," Kirkwood said. "It will come out sooner or later." In his case, it came out with a headline that Kirkwood interpreted as - the idiots with the EMS department didn't have enough sense to call the police.

"We have a no surprise policy," Kirkwood said. "Every member of the department has a responsibility to notify their supervisor when something happens... If you are going to manage a problem you have got to know about it."

When a crisis happens of significant magnitude, Kirkwood said it's a good idea to have a crisis management team that can be mobilized to deal with the situation. That team should consist of chief officers, a public information officer, operational supervisors, human resources personnel, and perhaps a legal advisor. It's also a good idea to have a crisis checklist that will give a framework of things that need to be said and done for a variety of scenarios that might happen, like a river rescue gone badly, or a ski resort avalanche that buries an ambulance, or any other particular situation that might occur.

In any case, the team will have to convene quickly because the news cycle never stops and media members will be looking for information quickly.

"If you don't give it to them, they might start making it up, or at the very least they'll talk to someone else who might not share your point of view," Kirkwood said. "You'll want to have your point of view out there first if possible."

It's OK, according to Kirkwood, to not divulge details immediately, but it's never a good idea to blow the media off with a "no comment" retort to questions.

"They are going to talk about the crisis with or without you and you're going to want to have your point of view out there," he said. It's fine to say that you don't know all the story yet and you need to get to the bottom of the crisis and learn the real story before making comments. Say you'll get back to them with information and then do just that no more than 24 hours later, preferably sooner.

"Your PIO will know the news cycle and the deadlines to get on the six o'clock news, or in the paper," he said, noting that he doesn't have a paid, full-time PIO but relies on an assistant chief who likes dealing with the media.

A PIO can be anyone with an interest and a demeanor to deal with the press, Kirkwood said, noting that there is training available to teach media skills to officers.

Departments that can't afford PIOs or even the training to send someone to school can do it themselves with role-playing or with journalism students from local schools, Kirkwood said.

"Practice with scenarios and with cameras and then critique what you do," Kirkwood said, noting that he has a tendency to speak with his hands which doesn't look good on television. "I learned that I have to stand like this," he said, with his hands behind his back in a parade-rest like posture.

Agencies in crisis will want to call frequent press conferences if the event is big enough to warrant continuous updates, he said. When facing the media in a press conference, Kirkwood said chief officers should maintain composure, even when inflammatory questions are asked repeatedly.

"Be gracious and don't get into a fight with them," he said. "You don't fight with a pig because when you do, everybody gets dirty and the pig likes it."

There are times when accidents and "screw ups" happen and when they do, the best policy is to fess up, apologize, and tell people what you plan to do in the future.

"It's good to say you are personally embarrassed by the action and disappointed and say you're sorry," Kirkwood said. "You'll also need to tell them what you are going to do to fix it... and you really need to mean it."