Planning For An LODD - Part 3: Family Notification & Liaison Appointments

Editors note: We hope that your department never suffers a line of duty death, but we feel it is important for each chief officer to understand the responsibilites to the fallen firefighter and their family, should a tragedy occur. This multiple-part series offers to serve as a guidline to prepare for everything from the funeral to the investigations that will occur after the incident.

Firefighter down!

Those two words will most likely evoke a very chilling reaction. Nevertheless, if you are working an emergency incident, the incident does not go away. Or, if a death takes place at the station or in a vehicle accident the department must continue to function while dealing with tragedy. In an earlier article I discussed the need for adequate Line of Duty Death (LODD) preplanning; now is the time preplanning pays off.

There are several assignments that need to be addressed in a short period of time. These activities are incident control, notifying next-of-kin, hospital liaison, family liaison, department and agency notifications, the investigation and the funeral process. I will briefly discuss each area in this two-part article.

Incident Control

First and foremost is firefighter safety. Maintaining effective command over any active incident will reduce chances of further injury. If not already established, consider assigning new sectors to oversee firefighter rescues and recovery, and consider replacing any on-scene emotionally distraught personnel.

Assign a public information officer. Do not release any injured personnel names until notified by the Family Liaison Officer. Isolate media to an area that allows for appropriate event coverage, enables efficient and timely press releases and prohibits inadvertently overhearing emergency personnel. Prepare a fact summary about the firefighter and the incident and prepare a written statement for the chief or spokesperson to release to the media at a briefing.

Next-of-Kin Notification

The notification process is implemented in the event of a department member(s) serious injury or death. As a general rule, this process should be used in the event that a member would require transportation to the hospital, or die in the line of duty. In the event of a serious injury, never delay notification; get the next-of-kin to the hospital as soon as possible.

The importance of timely next-of-kin notification cannot be overemphasized. The sincerity, sensitivity, and compassion demonstrated by the department's representatives are imperatives, and are a major factor in creating and maintaining a positive working relationship with the family, and, most importantly, marking the beginning of the grieving process.

It is extremely important that the fire chief assemble a notification team comprised of predetermined selected members to quickly respond to the injured or deceased family. If there are multiple deaths or injuries, there will a be need for more than one response team. The response team should be comprised of at least two members, preferably a chief officer and, when possible, a co-worker or family friend designated on the employee's next-of-kin notification form. Additionally, whenever possible, the department chaplain should be present. In unionized departments, a union representative may also be assigned to the notification team.

Notification Procedures

Retrieve the firefighter's emergency contact information form, if available. The National Fallen Firefighter's Foundation articulates the procedures very well. They state notification should be:

In person: always try to notify in person, never by phone.

  • Spouse, unmarried partners, and parents are first priority.
  • For family living out of the local area, arrange for authorities in that area to make personal notification.

In time and with certainty:

  • Get to the survivors quickly. Don't let the media notify them first.
  • Quickly gather as much information about the incident as possible before making the notification. Survivors will have questions.
  • Before making notification, have positive identification of the deceased firefighter and make sure you are talking to the correct family.

In pairs:

  • Have two people present to make the notification. Survivors may experience severe emotional or physical reactions when they learn of the death.
  • Using the employee's emergency contact information, identify a uniformed fire service member to accompany the department's representative. It may be helpful to have the department chaplain or friend of the firefighter's family, too.
  • Take two vehicles, if possible. This will allow one of you to take a survivor to the hospital, if necessary, while the second person stays with other survivors.
  • Before you arrive, decide who will speak and what the person will say.

In plain language:

  • Clearly identify yourself and present identification, and then ask to come in.
  • Make sure you are talking to the right person.
  • Begin with "I have very bad news," or "I'm so sorry to have to tell you this."
  • Use the words "died" and "dead" rather than terms such as "passed away" so the message is absolutely clear. Speak slowly. Get to the point quickly.
  • Calmly answer the survivor's questions. It is fine to say, "I don't know" if you don't know.
  • Use his or her name when referring to the firefighter, rather than saying "the body."

With compassion:

  • Allow survivors to express emotions. Do not try to talk them out of their grief.
  • Accept your own emotions. It's OK if you cry during notification, but stay calm.
  • Avoid the following words and phrases:
  • "I know how you feel"
  • "It was God's will"
  • "Life will go on"
  • "He or she would have wanted to go this way"
  • "Be brave"
  • Never leave immediately after making a notification. Offer to help the survivor call friends or family members. Do not leave before someone else arrives.
  • Do not take the firefighter's personal items with you when you make a notification. Tell the family they will receive them later. Most survivors will need some time before they feel able to deal with these items.
  • Offer to transport the family to where the firefighter is, and help prepare them for what they will see. Do not deny the family the opportunity to view the deceased even if the body is badly disfigured; people need to see, touch and hold the deceased, which helps the grieving process by counteracting denial.
  • Before leaving, write-down import information, including the names and phone numbers of the department personnel who will work with the family.
  • Have one member of the department stay with the family, unless the family declines.

Hospital/Morgue Liaison

If the critically injured or deceased firefighter will be transported to a local hospital, the department needs to assign a hospital liaison officer to facilitate the family's needs. Responsibilities include:

  • Meet with hospital officials to discuss appropriate waiting areas for family, coworkers, and the media.
  • Assist the family in dealing with the hospital staff.
  • Encourage the family to spend time with the injured or deceased firefighter. If the firefighter is badly injured or disfigured, help prepare the family for what they will see. Always allow the family members to make the decision whether or not they wish to see the firefighter.
  • Ensure that the injured/deceased firefighter's equipment and clothing are isolated, retrieved and held for future investigation.

If the family so desires:

  • Be available to the family at all times.
  • Assist with media.
  • Act as a "gatekeeper" by screening all telephone calls, responding to inquires, or assist them in making notifications.
  • Assist the family in obtaining medical information.
  • Arrange needed transportation for the family back to their residence.

In the event of death, determine whether an autopsy is required (varies by jurisdiction) and discuss this with the family. An autopsy and toxicology report are not mandatory to prove federal benefit eligibility, however, it is much easier to secure benefits with this information.

If the critically injured must be transported to an out-of-town hospital:

  • Help arrange transportation for the injured and family.
  • If possible, arrange to provide agency presence at the hospital. Contact the area fire department officials for assistance.
  • Assist the family with logistical needs such as lodging, meals, transportation, etc.
  • Determine any needs the family may have with their home, business, animals, etc.

Family Liaison Officer (FLO)

The FLO acts as the department's single point of contact to the family; therefore, the department must keep the FLO abreast of all contemporary issues surrounding the incident and death. The FLO position, while singular, should always be utilized using a team approach. The FLO is designated as the lead person with at least one other to assist and be present. These members must be available to the family at all times; the FLO should supply the family with their pager and telephone numbers for immediate contact.

Because this may be an emotionally difficult assignment, the department must diligently monitor members assigned to this position, remembering they too may be grieving, and, more specifically, understanding they may have family needs as well.

The FLO position is mainly responsible for attending to the family's needs; however, the FLO should not attempt to run the family's affairs. The family should make decisions unless the family delegates such authority to the FLO.

Immediate actions:

  • Confirm the ability to publicly release the deceased name; contact the PIO after family authorization.
  • Advise the family of known free or reduced price funeral and burial services. Ensure that the family understands that they do not have to make any immediate decisions regarding services, mortuary, and so forth.
  • Provide information on a fire department funeral with honors. Does the family wish for a fire department funeral? Assure the family that their wishes are the department's number one concern. If they prefer a private funeral the department can still hold a memorial service.
  • If a fire department funeral is desired, confer with the family regarding funeral options and their desires. Some decisions needing attention are:
  • Pall Bearers - family, fire department members, or both?
  • Family eulogist?
  • Children riding on the fire apparatus during procession?
  • Process by the family house?
  • Donations in lieu of flowers?
  • Buried in uniform?

The FLO responsibilities may include but are not limited to:

  • Until after the funeral establish a law enforcement officer presence at the house whenever the family is not present, and, in the following the following weeks after the funeral make routine checks.
  • Act as a "gatekeeper" to assist the family in screening or responding to incoming telephone calls and well-wishers stopping by.
  • Assisting the family with media. If requested, they may assist in speaking for the family or helping the family prepare a statement (the department PIO may be used).
  • Assist the family with any logistics, such as transportation for out-of-town relatives, childcare and so forth.
  • Assist with household responsibilities such as running errands, mowing the lawn, pet care, home and possible personal business needs.
  • Keep the family informed of all information surrounding the incident and death. Answer or find answers to questions the family may have.

Typically, soon after death, one of the main concerns survivors' have is their financial well being, especially in cases where the deceased was the sole financial contributor. This will be covered in great detail in a future article.

Related:

Chief Dan Hermes joined the Pleasantview Fire Protection District in 1977. Dan rose through the ranks and became the District's Deputy Chief in 1990 and Chief in 1995. Dan has a MS degree in criminal social justice and is currently finishing a Public Administration Master's Degree at the University of Illinois. Besides serving on several state and local committees, Dan has been a member and Chairman of the Illinois Fire Chiefs Funeral Committee for 17 years, and develops programs and teaches nationally for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. In 2001, Dan was selected as the Illinois Fire Chiefs first "Fire Chief of the Year." You can contact Dan at dhermes@plvw.org.

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