The Value of a Public Information Officer

By Antoine Tribble

Some of the most talented and knowledgeable people in this country are firefighters. When new hazards or disasters arise each year, firefighters ready to mitigate those situations. Whether it’s Homeland Security issues or day-to-day emergencies that every fire department faces, there are many hazards of which the public is unaware. Fire departments are frequently the initial lead agency in most communities that mitigates or assumes command in emergencies other than a crime, making public information necessary.

But do fire departments feel the need to give stories to the media or press that notes their responsibilities, value, worth, or just what they did? Is public information concerning an incident that was primarily mitigated by the fire department left for other agencies to report? Do we leave it to the news media and others to tell a fire, rescue, medical, or haz-mat story the way they want to, in “their” professional opinion? Every time the fire department successfully mitigates a big disaster, the public seems to be so grateful. But often when it is over, the focus appears to move away from the fire department.

Does the fire service realize the importance of educating the public, changing how people sees it, and how this affects us all? Does the public know the Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating for the city they live in, or what that even means? Do people understand how response times affect ISO ratings, the significance of the Golden Hour, the difference between a room-and-contents fire and a total loss, or what preparation goes into responding to all types of 911 calls? Do people know the type of 911 calls firefighters respond to, or how many nonemergency calls, surveys, inspections, and so forth they perform daily? Is it taken for granted that the public and government leaders will automatically be informed and understand the fire profession?

Firefighters can’t control the number of daily emergency calls. Most city councils, government committees, and even citizens have underlying issues with firefighter downtime; let them also know of all the duties and work your department performs and why it’s important. The public drives by a neighborhood fire station in the morning and sees an idle apparatus, then returns in the evening and see the same apparatus, apparently unused. Unaware of the many fire and other calls to which the fire company may have responded, it may imagine you did nothing. Public information–or the lack thereof–has a payoff.

It’s amazing that, with all the incidents that happen each year, citizens and many in government still see fire departments as one-dimensional. Pepsi is a large company and a household name, commonly associated with soft drinks. But it also advertises and markets the many other products it offers besides just soft drinks. Why don’t we do the same? People can name all of Pepsi’s other products, but I would bet that the average person couldn’t name many duties fire departments fulfills besides fighting fire, washing the truck, or cooking. In the big scheme, is the fact that the public knows so little about fire departments hurting us, helping us, or does it matter at all?

Youngsters are taught that firefighters fight fire, and people never lose that limited viewpoint. Recently, a local 18-year police veteran told me he thought the fire department was about nothing more than spraying water until he saw a television program on firefighting. Many in the fire service seem to be okay with, naïve about, or give little thought to lthe public and its outdated mindset, much less the effects thereof. However, when chiefs or administrators ask for equipment, salary increases, funds to maintain and add personnel, or try to improve the city’s ISO class ratings, it will be harder to justify these requests or overcome preconceived mindsets without consistent education and visibility. The old adage that the squeaky wheel gets the grease holds true in many ways. If you are never in the news or visible, you must not being doing anything.

No matter what size, every department should have a public information officer (PIO) or designated spokesperson to represent the department and build a relationship with the media. Seek the most well-spoken, articulate, well-groomed, and experienced person to give statements about an incident and the department’s various activities. Fire prevention programs inform children and adults about all the duties and responsibilities of your department and firefighters.

Most people get their information from television and newspapers. Many fire departments would rather avoid the limelight, but will pay a political and budgetary price for such thinking. When the fire department seeks to address departmental growth needs or present its wish list, an outdated or uneducated mindset makes it harder to sell its program to citizens and government leaders–statistics aren’t enough.

A good PIO is an excellent and needed tool to support and promote the fire service’s growth, image, and professionalism. In this age of information, public image carries a lot of weight–negatively and positively. So rofessionalism, public knowledge, and visibility does as matters.

Antoine Tribble has been in a KY career department for 19 years, and in the fire service for 23 years.

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