Public Information Officers: Are We “Accidentally” Sending the Wrong Message?

By Ed Ruckriegel and Denise DeSerio

In most fire departments, a public information officer is responsible for telling the department’s story to the media and, ultimately, the community. In most cases, the media and community listen with interest to what is being said. However, the words we use to tell our story are as important as, if not more important than, what we are trying to say. 

Fire investigation reports and press releases use the words “unintentional” and “accidental” to describe the cause of nearly all fires. Such words do not stir emotions and do not place blame. They are compassionate toward the person or persons who just experienced the losses of a fire. But, are they the words we should be using when addressing the public?

When the fire service uses words like “unintentional” and “accidental,” it cultivates the notion that fires just seem to happen and that there is not much a community can do about unwanted fires. This is not the message we want to deliver to the public. The fire service must work to change perceptions about neglectful fires.
When writing about something as serious as fire, we must be both sensitive and direct. We must fully understand the literal and perceived messages of the words we use in press releases. When the careless use of candles causes a fire, is it an “accident”? Or is it a human-caused event? It was unintentional, but to be very blunt, was it the result of thoughtless or irresponsible human behavior? “Negligent” is also an applicable word. How about total disregard for life and property?
According to Merriam-Webster Online, “accident” means  “1 a : an unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance b : lack of intention or necessity: chance <met by accident rather than by design>
2 a : an unfortunate event resulting especially from carelessness or ignorance …c : an unexpected happening causing loss or injury which is not due to any fault or misconduct on the part of the person injured but for which legal relief may be sought …”
When a young adult consumes too much alcohol, puts hamburgers in the skillet on a high flame , proceeds to pass out on the couch, and then a fire erupts in the kitchen, it is not coincidental, unforeseen, or unexpected. This scenario is predictable and preventable; therefore, by definition, it cannot be an “accident.” Smoking in bed or dumping the ashtray in the trash before extinguishing all of the butts has foreseeable consequences, which means the resulting fire did not occur by chance.
An attic fire caused by someone’s using a grill under the eaves of the home is unplanned but not unforeseen. The homeowner certainly did not intend to cause the fire in his home, but he was acting with ignorance and carelessness. The homeowner is clearly at fault.
When completing the investigative report or compiling the press release, consider using words that best support the fire service mission. Choose words that tell an accurate story with adjectives that make it very clear that the fire was predictable and preventable. Use a dictionary or thesaurus to find words appropriate for the situation. Describing the fire caused by careless smoking as “a reckless act by a person smoking a cigarette” personalizes the act and places blame as appropriate, reinforcing the fact that the fire was preventable. Perhaps describing the person who caused the kitchen fire as “thoughtless” or “absentminded” will change perceptions about putting food on the stove and leaving the food unattended.
If we want to change perceptions about fires and have people view fire as something that is preventable, we need to personalize the cause and place blame when appropriate. For example, law enforcement and activist campaigns have changed perceptions about operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs by assigning blame to the vehicle operator. In most driving under the influence (DUI) cases resulting in accidents and injuries to others, the driver did not intentionally hit the victim, but the deliberate disregard for the safety of others allows for severe penalties, and public perception readily recognizes the incident as completely preventable, with fault clearly placed on the impaired driver. Despite the lack of intent to hurt anyone, the conscious decision to participate in such reckless actions implies that intent. Perhaps we can use the law enforcement approach to change perceptions. Fire service press releases would end with phrases such as “The tenant was issued a citation for inattentive cooking” or “A fine was imposed for irresponsible smoking.”
Say what you mean, and mean what you say. We in the fire service need to take responsibility for our message, wording it in such a way as to challenge and enlighten public perception. How you say it is as important as what you say.
Denise DeSerio is an administrative clerk for the City of Madison (WI) Fire Department, providing administrative support services for the command staff and fire prevention for the past 10 years.

Ed Ruckriegel has been a member of the fire service since 1979 as a volunteer firefighter in Kentucky. He joined the Madison (WI) Fire Department as a fire protection engineer in 1990 and manages the department’s fire prevention services. He was promoted to fire marshal in 1994. Previously, he was an assistant fire protection engineer with the Las Vegas (NV) Fire Department. He has a Bachelor of Science degree from Eastern Kentucky University.

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