Dealing with Death as the Public Information Officer

April 2, 2007
Make sure you have "all of the information" and it has been "confirmed" by a reliable source before you release anything.

Make sure you have "all of the information" and it has been "confirmed" by a reliable source before you release anything.

It will happen sometime in your duties as a Public Information Officer (PIO) - dealing with the subject of death. This might include talking with the media about a fatality which involves either a civilian or a member of the fire department. It is probably one of the more difficult tasks assigned to the PIO. Unlike other personnel who may leave the scene or be relieved, PIOs usually have to stay on scene, are asked about and have to talk about or explain the death for many days or even weeks after the incident.

Civilian deaths can occur in a number of ways. One thing that I keep in mind whenever I deal with death is to remember how I would want to hear about it if it involved a family member or a friend.

In this fast-paced media world, word travels at light speed. It is not unusual for people to be watching or hearing about an extrication of a severe vehicle accident or firefighters bringing out a fire victim while it is actually happening on live television.

What we need to remember is that the vehicles that are being shown on the TV can be viewed by a family member just as a house fire and the victims being brought out. How would you feel if you were watching the news and they break to show a multi-vehicle accident involving a school bus and you see it was the bus taking your children to a sporting event? It is not unusual for people to see or hear about these things through the media instead of being notified by "authorities."

First of all, make sure you have "all of the information" and it has been "confirmed" by a reliable source before you release anything. And when it involves casualties, it has to be reliable. Releasing erroneous information about an injury or death could ruin your reputation, regardless of how you received the information. Usually I will confirm it myself and if at all possible, in person. Many of my notifications come from the fire alarm office. Once notified, I check the computer to see what information is currently known via communications from the incident commander to the communications center. If I am unable to respond to the incident, I will then call the incident commander on the scene and confirm the details about the incident. It is most critical that you confirm and re-confirm information of this type before you release anything. If you are not sure about the information you received or you feel unsure, my advice would be to hold off until you are absolutely sure.

Dealing with a Departmental Death

This can be a line-of-duty incident or while the member was engaged in some other type incident while on or off duty. Here are the differences: Line-of-duty deaths will probably attract the most media attention especially if it occurred during an incident, such as a building fire, building collapse, drowning while performing a search or rescue, vehicle accident while responding to or while on a call, shootings, the list is endless. Other incident deaths is while the person was on duty but not involved in an incident, such as a heart attack while on duty or during a training exercise. Although just as tragic as a line-of-duty death, it will probably not attract as much media attention. Lastly is the member who died while off-duty. This can be of natural causes such as an illness or injury not related to department business, many times because personnel were involved in a motor vehicle accident in their private vehicles, involved in a sporting accident while on vacation or they have been battling a long time illness.

In all three cases proper notifications should be made according to your department's procedure on how to deal with these types of incidents. If your department does not have a procedure in place, I strongly recommend you develop and implement one. It goes much easier if you have a plan in place and deal with the event when it happens rather than trying to put something together at the last moment.

Any release of information should be in a "media release" format (sometimes referred to as a statement) and distributed among staff so everyone has the same information and only that information is released. Usually the chief of the department or a high ranking official of the department or agency will make an announcement using the release. After the preliminary information is released, it will fall back on the PIO to do the follow up and handle inquires and future releases.

Releasing the Names of Victims

It has always been my procedure not to release names to the media. If it is a fire related death, I have always let the coroner or medical examiner's office release the name. This is for several reasons. First, names should never be released unless the next of kin has been notified. Today's world is much more complicated and who the next of kin can be a difficult task to determine and could have legal complications. The coroner or medical examiner will not issue a death certificate, which is the legal document to pronounce the victim is deceased, until the next of kin is notified. Since they are doing the follow up and have determined who the person is "officially," I let them release it. I have worked incidents where the person's name changed several times during the investigation before it was determined what the legal name was. Had I prematurely released the incorrect name, my reputation as a PIO could have been damaged.

If it involves a member of the department, the chief of the department should make the determination of when the name should be released. This should be done along with family members of the deceased. While this is going on, the PIO should be gathering information about the deceased member such as when they were made a member of the department, job title, duties, past awards, and the like. Many times a photo is used by the media. The PIO should try to get one ready; this may involve talking with the family to see if they have a preference on what type of photos should be used. If your department has an "official" photo, then that photo should be used.

Working an Incident with a Fatality

While working an incident which involves fatalities, your media area should be in a remote area away from the public and most personnel. This way, things that you report to the media can not be overheard by bystanders. If it involves a family member who was not aware of a fatality, they could be overwhelmed.

You should try to keep family members or friends of the deceased away from the media while you are in control of the incident. One reason may be the family or friends do want to be interviewed by the media and they would like their privacy. Another reason is if they start to give interviews, the ones that didn't get an interview will insist on it and if they don't get it, they will blame the PIO for not cooperating or favoring certain media. PIOs can not advise anyone not to talk to the media as that right is protected by the Constitution of the United States. But PIOs can control situations to ensure the family and friends' privacy is protected and if they wish to talk to the media, to ensure that it is done in an orderly manner.

Reporting the Cause of Death

In most cases causes of death will not be determined until the death certificate has been issued by the coroner or medical examiner. Although PIOs should never speculate, some information that has been approved by investigators and the incident commander can give the media and public insight into what caused the death and to reduce the possibility of rumors. For instance, if it appears the person died of smoke inhalation to investigators, a statement such as "the official cause of death will be determined by the Coroner's Office, but it appears to investigators that smoke inhalation may be the cause." The statement advises that the official cause will be determined later but investigators have somewhat of an idea but have not determined the exact cause. This gives you an opportunity to change it if something comes up during the autopsy such as the real cause of death was a gun shot wound or blunt force trauma and the fire was used to conceal the crime.

Also if items or devices (such as an appliance or electric wiring) fails or someone's action may have been the cause of death, statements to that effect should not be released unless it can be backed up with documentation such as investigator reports or the fire run report. Many times, deaths can lead to a lawsuit and the PIOs statements will certainly be used in court. If it can not be documented or substantiated by your department, it should not be used.

Notification of death to family members/friends As the PIO there have been several times in my career I have had to tell family members or friends that someone close to them has lost their life. It is probably the most difficult task in the fire service.

Although there are people who are trained in this area or there are support agencies such as the American Red Cross or the Trauma Intervention Program (TIP), sometimes time will not allow the luxury of waiting for someone from one of those agencies to respond. Many times the PIO will be asked to break the news.

It should be done in a quiet place away from bystanders or the media. The PIO should be prepared that the party they are talking to will not take the news lightly and may become extremely distraught or may even be in denial.

Keep it simple. Don't give a lot of details. Do not place blame on anyone or anything. Offer your condolences and sympathy. Again keep reminding yourself of how would you feel if you were that person.

This can also apply if a person has suffered a great loss or maybe the loss of a pet. Many times a person who has lost everything due to a fire or other disaster will be extremely distraught. The loss of a pet can be just as traumatic as losing a family member.

Our department recently responded to an overnight house fire where the house was completely destroyed. Inside the house were two large dogs that could not escape in time. Neighbors told us that a woman lived alone with the two dogs and that she worked nights at one of the larger hotels in town. We were unable to locate her so there was no way to tell her about the dogs.

A few hours later she returned home and was devastated by the fire, but it was the loss of the dogs she could not handle. A media crew that was parked across the street to do a story about the fire called me at home and told me the woman was not taking it very well and maybe there was something I could do. As I drove back to the scene, I remembered that recently our family had lost a dog that we had for years. Both of my sons grew up with the dog and it went on our family vacations - it was another member of our family. When the dog passed away, all of us were emotionally moved. Remembering how that affected me made it easier to talk to woman when I got to the scene and I could relate to her feelings. Often times the PIO will have to be a compassionate, caring individual.

Controlling the Media at Fatal Incidents

It is almost certain that any time there is a death due to an accident or other incident that the fire department is handling, the media will be there also. Many times they will be taking photographs or video of the incident and victim. This usually upsets personnel on scene and they will ask me to ask the media to refrain.

If the media is on public property there is no way that pubic safety agencies can control what video or photographs are taken. There are ways to control it, such as put up barricade tape far enough that the media can not see the victim, vehicles or apparatus can be parked so it blocks the view or there are special devices which are used to block out the view, but this is rarely used.

One thing to remember is that the media may be shooting video or photographs of the victim, but usually it will only show a part of the victim or not enough that the victim could be identified. Most times it is usually of the body, either in a body bag or covered on a gurney while being loaded into the coroner's vehicle or hearse. Sometimes they may show a victim lying on the ground with a sheet over them or over a vehicle, with even a body part showing such as foot or hand sticking out. This should not be a problem.

It is important for the PIO to remember the media has a job to do also and their judgment on what to shoot should be respected. As the PIO you need to remember that you may need to ask the media for a favor so you want to keep your relationships on the positive side.

One favor that I had to ask the media several years ago involved a motor vehicle accident involving fire with multiple fatalities. The accident occurred in downtown Atlanta during the morning rush hour when traffic was bumper to bumper. A car traveling in one of the high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes stalled and came to a stop. The car had six individuals in it and before any of them could exit the vehicle, it was rear ended by a car traveling at a high rate of speed. The impact caused the car to explode and become fully involved. Four of the occupants could not exit the burning vehicle in time and burned inside the car.

The scene was a gruesome one and in sight of several thousand people on the heavily traveled highway and from high-rise office buildings along the roadway. The medical examiner made the decision to have the car immediately loaded on a flat bed truck and taken to a remote location to conduct his examination. After arriving at the remote location, he asked me if I could persuade one of the media with a camera to assist him by videotaping the investigation. I asked several media people that were there and one volunteered. He videotaped the entire examination and when it was over, he handed the tape over to the medical examiner. He said he was there only to tape the hearse as it was leaving the remote area. The medical examiner was extremely thankful for their assistance in this unusual situation.

My advice in this area is if the media is doing their work and it is legal, they should be permitted to do so. Asking them not to do it will complicate matters and possibly cause hard feelings.

Learning from Past Incidents

Here are two other situations I encountered that other Fire-PIOs may face, as I did.

I was dispatched at 3:00 a.m. to a multiple-fatality mobile home fire involving small children. When I arrived on scene I was told that three boys, ranging in age from five years to 13 years of age, had died in the fire due to a space heater. There were no parents at home at the time of the fire. This was in a low income mobile home park, neighbors said that the parents worked at night and the 13-year-old would care for the boys while the parents were at work. The investigation quickly concluded and it was ruled accidental. None of the neighbors knew much about the parents and they did not know where they worked. Since the mobile home was completely destroyed, there was no information available to help us to figure out who and where the parents were.

At 5:00 a.m. all of the local television stations had live trucks on the scene, I was the only representative of the fire department left on scene, everyone else had cleared. I completed several interviews and figured I would be on scene with the media until 8:00 a.m. when most stations concluded their morning news shows.

At about 7:00 a.m. it dawned on me that the parents might show up while the media was there and no sooner did I think about it, did it happen. While on live television, the parents came home to find their home completely destroyed. They did not speak English, so I found a neighbor who could translate for me and we went into a neighbor's trailer where I had to break the news to the parents that their three boys had died in the fire.

Since PIOs are left on the scene possibly for hours to conduct interviews, situations like this are possible. You should be prepared.

In another situation our department had a technical rescue in progress on the 70th floor of a downtown high-rise hotel. An elevator technician had become entangled in some cables that had weights on them and he was dangling in the atrium of the hotel, 70 floors above the main reception area. I went to the 70th floor to check on the progress of the rescue and firefighters told me they were confident that he would be rescued within 15 minutes.

When I went outside to the command post, an army of live trucks and media had arrived on scene and they were breaking regular programming to tell about the event. The rescue took longer than anticipated and we had worked into the main evening news broadcast of the 5 o'clock hour.

At 5:30 p.m. as I was just to give a live update to several of the media, the chief's aide walked up behind me and whispered in my ear that the man had fallen and was dead. Seconds later we were live. I reported that the rescue was still in progress and we were doing everything we could to save the worker. At the same time I was giving the interview, I kept thinking in the back of my mind that this man probably had family and they were watching to see how things were going.

As soon as the interviews concluded, I immediately went to the rescue floor to get a report and was told that the man had opened his rescue harness and fell. Firefighters could not explain why the man had opened the harness. I went to the main floor and witnessed where the man had fallen to confirm what I was told. It was approaching 6:00 p.m. and I knew that was the biggest audience of the evening news and I was starting to mentally prepare how I was break the news of the man's death.

At 6:00 p.m. we were the lead story, and on live television I made the announcement. The whole time I did it, I kept thinking how devastating it must have been for the man's family to find out that way. It was one moment that I will never forget. It had bothered me for a while. What helped a lot was a number of letters that was sent to the fire chief from the media saying that was one of the most difficult situations they had to cover and the way I handled it was the best that could have been done.

Talking about death is a very difficult thing. I would encourage anyone that has to do it to take advantage of any critical incident stress debriefing or counseling programs that are available in your department. If it bothers you, ask for help. Also there are a number of organizations that over training in this area, such as the Trauma Intervention Program (TIP). As a PIO, it is almost certain you will need to talk about death at some time or another. If it is a difficult situation, contact other PIOs and seek advice. And make sure you consult with your supervisor or the fire chief in the most difficult situations. If it is a difficult death, you will most certainly need their backing.

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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