Treat The Media The Same As You Would The Public

Aug. 18, 2003
Remember that we are responsible for the media’s safety just as well as the general public.Happens all the time, barricade tape is put up to keep onlookers and the media out of an emergency scene, and yet there are some from the public that get past the tape and the media ask, "if they're up there, why can't we?"depending on local ordinances and state laws, the media should be treated as equals to the general public and in some areas, they may have access to areas the public is not allowed to be in.
type='node' cid='66793' />Remember that we are responsible for the media’s safety just as well as the general public.Happens all the time, barricade tape is put up to keep onlookers and the media out of an emergency scene, and yet there are some from the public that get past the tape and the media ask, "if they're up there, why can't we?"

depending on local ordinances and state laws, the media should be treated as equals to the general public and in some areas, they may have access to areas the public is not allowed to be in.

At any incident scene a safety perimeter should be immediately established and "everyone" that is not directly connected to scene management should be kept out of the area. Once command is in control and the scene is stable, some access to the scene should be granted to the media if it is possible. This does not mean they should be right on top of the incident, but somewhat closer. Here are some of the ways I do it:

2. After meeting with the Incident Commander and gathering information about the incident, I look for a place, which is close to the incident that will give the media a visual advantage so they can report the story more accurately. Usually it is across the street from the incident, away from equipment and hoses. After finding that place, I check with the Incident Commander to see if it is permissible to establish a media area close to the scene and describe its location. If approved, I return to the media to escort them to the new media area. If not approved, I explain to the media that the scene is not safe enough for closer access and give them what information is available.

3. Escort the media to the new media area if approved. They should be told that they cannot wander around the incident scene and must stay within the designated media area. BE FIRM. You are responsible for their safety and must control their actions. While in the media area, I explain the actions of the firefighters, answer any questions they have and provide any updates when possible.

4. If some of the media arrives late, they should be told to stay at the safety perimeter (barricade tape) until you can escort them to the media area. Anyone that wants to leave the media area to return to outside the safety perimeter should be escorted out.

5. If anyone slips past the safety perimeter, they should be escorted back outside the area or into the media area.

Many times the media will ask if they can go on the property of where the incident occurred. Members of the fire service and PIOs are not permitted to give permission to the media to access private property. Only the property owner can do that. I have had some Incident Commanders tell me that when the fire department is in control of an incident, they are in charge of the property. I would advise against this, you could find yourself in a civil lawsuit case. It is not worth it.

In some cases departments will give access to special photojournalist and photographers to fire scenes while keeping the rest of the media and public back. If you give access to one, you have to give it to everyone. What works for me is to explain to the media that we have special photographers or photojournalists working on a special story and we may be giving them special access. Those on special assignment have to wear a special blue MEDIA vest while doing their story. When done that way, 99.9% of the time I receive no complaints from the media. They would want the same special treatment if they were doing a special story and they will respect you more for being honest with them.

Being honest and explaining to the media about special circumstances has always worked the best for me and the media respects me more for being honest. Case in point: We recently had a special HazMat incident of a barrel of gasoline left unattended in a remote part of a parking lot at a large hotel and casino. Because of information that was received at the beginning of the incident, it was decided to handle the situation as a potential explosive device. Our bomb squad was dispatched to do an analysis of the barrel before HazMat could enter the scene. While the bomb squad was preparing to check it out, the bomb squad commander told me to tell the media not to show them on TV or take pictures of them. If you ever tell the media not to do something, you can bet they are going to do everything they can to do it.

What I did was asked them not to do it instead of telling them not to do it. And I explained why, that potential terrorists use news footage and pictures to study the response, setup and handling of explosive situations by bomb squads and they could be helping terrorists in the future plan an attack on our community. By asking them to wait until the bomb squad could finish doing their work, I would do my best to get them closer to the scene while the HazMat team did their clean up (we know clean up means the scene is safe.) They agreed, and again I was thanked for being honest with them. I received a few calls from news directors during the incident, but after I explained the same thing to them, they said they understood.

And I kept my promise, once the scene was declared safe, they were given close up access to the area to see crews cleaning up and watch the HazMat cleanup company retrieve the barrel and take it away. Everyone ended up happy.

During the same incident, police called the FAA and requested restricted air space to keep media helicopters out of the area. Since that incident, I have learned the following:

2. The restricted area is only as wide as the area on the ground up to 3000 feet. That means that if the perimeter is a one-half mile radius of the incident, it is one-half mile wide (radius) up to 3000 feet high. Make sure you keep all un-necessary people out of that same area on the ground.

3. Remember that you will be not only restricting the media during the event, but ALL aircraft in the area. This could have an economic impact on civil and commercial aviation.

4. If you have to restrict airspace, do it-but discretely. You should discuss this with your local FAA office and have a plan in place before an emergency arises.

5. Lastly, if you want the media to stay out of the area with aircraft, try talking to them first. I have found that works best, they know that being asked to refrain from showing certain events or activities is better than being restricted from the area all together.

Remember that we are responsible for the media's safety just as well as the general public. In some cases you might have to be firm and ask them to pull back or leave an area, especially if their safety is a concern.

I know of an incident where a PIO was asked by the media to drive them through an area where a wildfire occurred. The fire was under control and it was felt that it would not be a problem. While driving them through the area, a utility pole fell with live wires and ignited another wildfire. For a short time, they retreated to a ranch with other wildfire crews and held fast as air tankers got the flare up under control. Although the flames were spectacular for a short time, for anyone with any firefighting experience, they knew it would be under control in a few minutes and no one was in immediate danger. But that was not how the media saw it and ironically, the same people that begged him to take them to the scene, did a story about how he put them in harm's way. The same could happen in your community by taking the media through a burned out building, while in there they could fall through a hole in the floor or a ceiling might collapse. Remember, you are responsible for their safety while on the scene.

On the other side . . .

One thing that the media has to be reminded from time to time is, as they want to be treated like the public; the door swings both ways and the media should be treated the same as the public. Some from the media feel that they should receive special treatment. I might have agreed with that view several years ago, but later on I learned that it is not the way to go. You should treat them exactly the same.

For example normal business hours for the public to conduct non-emergency business is Monday thru Friday 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM. The same should apply for public information in most cases. The exception would be emergencies or disasters in progress. But many from the media believe that requests for public information should be handled at any time they request it. This can get you into trouble in a number of ways.

First case is in dealing with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. In most states (it is applied differently in each state) you have three business days to reply to a FOIA request. I require that all FOIA requests be in writing which is either mailed in, hand delivered or faxed in. I do not accept e-mailed FOIA requests. In our case, we have three business days to reply to the request (that does not necessarily mean they will get the information they requested, only that their request was received.) If you get in the practice of replying immediately, later when you need that extra time for an involved incident, it will appear you are stalling.

Calls for interviews and the like are held to normal business hours. Again, the media has several shifts that work seven days a week. When one crew leaves for the day, there is another crew that takes their place. But in many cases, there is only one PIO to handle media inquiries for a department. Sometimes you feel like they are play "team tag" against you. MOST requests for information from the media can be handled during normal business hours. Again, you should get in the practice of conducting business during normal business hours. There is nothing that says that you can't work extra and in some cases you will have too. Emergencies and disasters require the PIO to be on scene and do follow up as needed and in many cases that will be conducted after normal business hours on any day of the week and holidays.

In another area, our department has started a program where background checks are conducted on anyone that does a ride along with our crews. Prior to a person doing a ride along (such as in the Citizens Fire Academy, or a member of an outside department working on a project) we have an application package that must be filled out so we can do a simple/general background check to make sure that person is really who they say they are. (We started this program as a security measure after 9/11).

We are now requiring the media to do the same and some are crying "foul." Again, they are being treated just as anyone else is. If they don't want to fill out the paperwork, they are denied the ride. It is better to be sure and cover yourself than to take a chance. What if in just one case the person you permitted to ride along from the media was a criminal or even a terrorist. Remember we are the professionals and should set an example to the rest of the community that taking security precautions are in the interest of homeland security.

The same goes with the media on the scene of an incident. Some believe that traffic regulations do not apply to the media during an emergency. Again, they are no different than the public and from time to time they have to be reminded. They are not permitted to park their vehicles in no parking zones or along red curbs. In our community they are not permitted to park within 300 feet of an emergency vehicle with their emergency lights flashing. (You don't need a special permit or ordinance for this; check your state laws. Most every state has a law that forbids the following of an emergency vehicle within a certain distance. When fire units are on scene, they may be moved at any time, so that distance should be maintained. In some cases the media has parked against the rear of a fire unit, and later that unit told to lay another line only to be blocked by the media vehicle.) The PIO must take control of the situation and ensure that the media at an emergency incident does not hamper firefighting combat crews and prevent the media from parking their vehicles in areas, which may hamper operations.

It has been my experience that when you treat the media just as you would the public (even in areas that they object to) they will treat you with respect more often than not.

NOTE: I have a new website Check it out for information about a Fire-Public Information Officer conference and school I will be hosting in Las Vegas on November 3-6 along with Firehouse.Com, Firehouse Magazine and the Fire & Emergency Training Network. Come learn from the best on how to deal with the media..

If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail them to: [email protected] or call me (702) 229-0145.

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