The PIO Must Ensure the Media's Safety at Incidents

Jan. 8, 2007
If we set certain safety procedures at an incident such as establishing a safety perimeter around the incident, it not only applies to the public, it includes everyone that is non-essential emergency personnel, including the media.

If we set certain safety procedures at an incident such as establishing a safety perimeter around the incident, it not only applies to the public, it includes everyone that is non-essential emergency personnel, including the media.

After each one of my annual public information and media relations seminars, I review class evaluations that were submitted by the participants. One area that is covered during the seminar is "media safety." I was amazed at the overwhelming number that replied that they were not aware that they are responsible for the safety of the media while at an incident. This was true even of experienced PIOs. The answer is yes. Fire service personnel are required to ensure the safety of everyone, and that includes the media at incidents.

Some from the media might want to argue the point, but they are no different from anyone else and should be treated as everyone else. That means if we set certain safety procedures at an incident such as establishing a safety perimeter around the incident, it not only applies to the public, it includes everyone that is non-essential emergency personnel, including the media. Let's break it down into a few areas.

Access to the incident: Any incident whether large or small, should have a safety perimeter around it. Even at motor vehicle accidents, we park our apparatus to ensure that the victims and emergency responders are protected. If the incident is much larger, like a hazardous material release, the area will be much larger. Regardless of the size of the incident, a safety area should be established. Whether the media is permitted inside the safety area is another issue.

At first PIOs, should assume the "worst case scenario" and keep the media, as well any non-essential personnel and public at a safe distance from the incident. After the PIO has examined the area, they should discuss a move up by the media with the incident commander. Once that has been approved, then the PIO should establish an area where the media can access to and have it marked off. Then the PIO should meet with the media and escort them to the designated media area. The media should be constantly reminded that they are to remain in the area or they will be escorted back to the first established safety perimeter.

Media area at the scene: Once a media area has been approved by the incident commander and established, it should be clearly marked. In Las Vegas, the color "white" has been designated for public information issues. First, I have a white rotating beacon on top of my PIO vehicle for identification purposes. All of the media and law enforcement agencies know that the white light is for the PIO van and the media should report to that unit. I park the PIO van where I want the media to park their vehicles so I usually pick a parking lot or maybe one lane of a road. I have special orange cones and flashing LED lights to mark of the parking area for the media and warn motorists in the area. The rear of my vehicle has a flashing direction arrow on it, so if the media parks along with my vehicle and we use one lane of the road for the media staging area, it advises approaching motorists that the lane is closed. Some of the things I look for when I pick a parking area for the media are:

  1. Will it hamper fire or emergency operations? You should consider that the incident might go to extra alarms bringing in additional equipment and possibly more hoseline placements. If media vehicles are not parked in the right place, they could be surrounded by hoselines, which in some cases could be used for several hours or even days. As you know vehicles are not permitted to cross hoselines, so that means the media might lose the services of one of their live trucks or other vehicles if it is not placed correctly.
  2. Make sure there are no overhead power lines. Most of the media will be using telescopic booms or satellite dishes which could be hampered by power lines. Look out for trees especially if the incident is during a storm, trees could be blown over onto one of the vehicles.
  3. Consider traffic in the area. I use lanes of a roadway as a parking/staging area for the media as a last resort. Usually there is a nice parking lot nearby which is usually your best bet. But in some extreme cases, using the street is the only alternative or maybe you are at a large motor vehicle accident along a busy highway. I encourage the media to wear safety vests, which many have gotten on their own. Some news agencies have provided flashing/rotating yellow lights on their vehicles for safety.
  4. Make sure you have a clear evacuation route for you and the media in case conditions worsen, especially in wildland fire areas.

Inside the Safety Perimeter Media Area

Once the media staging area inside the safety perimeter has been selected, I use a special white PIO barricade tape to mark off the area where I want the media to congregate. At night, I use special LED white lights that flash to mark off the area. This area is usually somewhere near the incident where the media has a good vantage point for video or photos. Again there are special considerations for this area such as: is there any possibility of downed power lines, burst hoselines or building collapse? If so, is the established area away from these hazards? You must constantly remind the media that they must stay in that area or they will be escorted back outside to the safety perimeter. One way to keep them in the area is to keep going back to them and give updates. Once they feel you will keep them informed, they will not feel that they have to leave to find what they need to know.

Protective Clothing

In some cases, the PIO will need to provide safety gear or protective clothing to the media for their protection. This is true if they get very close to the scene, say a burning building or after the fire has been put out. Sometimes this is done for dramatic purposes, or maybe the PIO uses the incident to teach the media some issues about fire or fire control. Another area is wildland fires. If the PIO gives permission for the media to go into a hazardous area, they need to provide the protective clothing or equipment.

A few times in my career, I have been at incidents or know of incidents where the fire department permitted the media into a wildland area and the fire flared up out of control. In one case, a photojournalist was severely burned trying to escape the area and he had no protective clothing. In another case, the PIO escorted the media into a wildland fire area after they felt the fire was under control. As they entered the area on the only road into the valley, a wooden power pole that was damaged by the fire broke behind them crossing the road and rekindling the fire where it once again was out of control. The media got some dramatic video of the incident after they retreated to a nearby ranch, but the media played the angle that the PIO had placed them in harm's way. A review was conducted of both incidents and it was felt that the fire departments in both cases did not offer the protection that should have been. In one of the cases the fire department was fined by a state agency for violating state occupation and safety regulations. Departments could be held accountable in civil court if the reporter is injured.

Media Ride Alongs

Media ride alongs are something needed to show the public how the fire service operates. But, here are some issues that should be considered:

With privacy and HIPAA issues a concern, I would suggest that ride alongs in emergency medical units where patients are being transported not be conducted. Besides the privacy issues, there are issues of disease and other medical conditions which may place the media doing the ride along in a hazardous situation. Don't take the chance.

I permit the media to do ride alongs in engines and ladder trucks from time to time. Usually it is one reporter and one photographer. This should only be permitted if everyone can adhere to strict safety protocol - that is while the vehicle is in motion, everyone must be seated with a seatbelt on - no exceptions. I am a strict believer in fire service personnel wearing their seatbelts anytime they are in a motor vehicle while it is motion. It is important to ensure the media ride alongs are properly belted and all the personnel in the apparatus (we must set a good example for safety and prevention). Never should the media be permitted to ride on top of a rig, or in the main ladder of ladder truck for unusual video/photo shots. It is not worth the risk.

While the media is doing the ride along, strict guidelines should be adhered to such as when at the scene of a motor vehicle accident on a freeway, the media should remain in the apparatus. If they respond to a fire, once on scene, they should report to the area where the rest of the media at the incident has congregated.

Extremely Important: A Supreme Court ruling dictates that public safety personnel (fire service included) can not give the media permission to have access to private property. This means if you have the media on a ride along and you respond to a fire or medical emergency in a private residence, the media should either stay in the rig, stand next to the rig in the street or they can be on the sidewalk. You can not allow them onto the property such as the yard or in the home without the homeowner's consent

I would suggest that all fire departments review their guidelines for ride alongs. Make sure that your legal representatives are aware of it and have approved it. I would also suggest a ride along waiver form crafted by your legal department.

Fire Buffs and Fire Photographers

From time to time I am asked by fire photographers if they can do ride alongs or be given "fire line passes" if they get to the scene so they can get up and close to shoot pictures and videos. On our department, I regard them as members of the media and I do not allow them special privileges.

If it something that has been approved by the fire chief, and legal department, maybe something can be worked out. But my experience has been that the rest of the media will want to be treated the same.

One large media corporation which owns one of our local TV stations threatened to take legal action against our department and the city if we show preferential treatment to any news agency or person.

And again, if you grant permission for this person to cross the line and take photos, you are responsible for their safety the entire time they are in that area. Many times I become so involved with working with the media on a scene or gathering information that it would be difficult for me to keep up with someone that is running around the scene. So on our department, fire photographers and fire buffs are treated like the rest of the media.

Helping the media get their information and perform their duties is one of the responsibilities of the fire department public information officer. But at the same time, all fire service personnel are committed to protecting the public and that includes the media also. Sometimes the PIO will have to make unpopular decisions and not allow the media access to certain incidents because of safety reasons. Even though the media may get upset over it, with a little explanation, they will understand later what and why you did what you did.

Just recently a news reporter at one of our local TV stations asked me to help with a safety story on how to purchase and maintain Christmas trees in the home.

After the story was over, the reporter said to me, "You probably don't remember me, but I worked a story with you several years ago for another station." It seems this reporter responded in a TV live van to a building fire our department was working. In their haste to get on the air, they pulled on the side the road and started to put their mast up. She said just as they got started putting the mast up, I ran over to their truck and told them that power lines were directly above the truck and the mast would come into contact with them creating a potential electrocution hazard. She said the both of them didn't realize it because it was night-time. She said she wanted to thank me because she thought about it a lot afterwards and she said "you probably saved both of our lives."

That is what the fire service is all about, preventing incidents from happening in the first place and saving lives.

Help keep the media, and the rest of the public safe. And, stay safe yourself.

You can learn more about media safety and other media subjects at the Fifth Annual Las Vegas Fire & Rescue Public Information & Media Relations Seminar which will be held at the Las Vegas Fire & Rescue Fire Academy, Nov. 5-8. For more details keep checking out website at and click on 2007 Public Information & Media Relations Seminar.

Tim Szymanski is the Fire - Public Information Officer for Las Vegas Fire & Rescue. As the Fire-PIO he is in charge of public information, public relations, fire safety education, Citizens Fire Academy and the Las Vegas Fire Corps program. He is also in charge of photo and video services and manages the "Fire Channel" which provides cable educational services to over 50 fire stations of five fire departments in Southern Nevada. He has been in the fire service for 35 years serving in every position from firefighter to fire chief. Nearly 20 of those years have been working with the media. He was the Fire-PIO for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. He is a nationally known speaker on media relations and is now teaching public information and media relations at area colleges in Las Vegas and host a seminar each year in Las Vegas for Fire-PIOs. He is also a Fire-Photojournalist, much of his work has been seen on various TV programs and in trade magazines. Please visit Tim's website at www.Fire-Pio.Com. Or contact Tim at [email protected].

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