THE PIO: A POSITION WITH INFINITE BOUNDARIES

THE PIO: A POSITION WITH INFINITE BOUNDARIES

BY STEPHEN J. RUDA

Service agencies are becoming more aware of the importance of having on staff an individual prepared to handle media relations. In the fire department, this individual is usually the public information officer (PIO).

The PIO must be well trained and always well informed to be effective. The many aspects of the PIO position include, but are not limited to, providing accurate and timely information in emergencies, keeping all segments of the community updated on the fire department`s activities, and building a bridge from the department to the overall community.

The PIO`s functions, however, can extend well beyond community borders. These days, every PIO must be ready for that time when he might be called on to answer tough questions under world scrutiny. Whether a fire department is in a large municipality or a small town, it is just a 911 phone call away from notoriety.

On the morning of April 19, 1995, the PIO of the Oklahoma City (OK) Fire Department had no inkling, even minutes before the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, that he was about to undertake the awesome responsibility of informing the world of developments in the search and rescue operations for victims of the blast. It never occurred to him as he drove to work that morning that a soon-to-happen explosion would change him and his department in the eyes of the world forever.

It is not unusual today to receive calls from the local media asking how well prepared your department is to handle a major emergency, a natural disaster, or a terrorist attack similar to one that had recently occurred in some other community, state, or country. Our office has handled numerous phone calls from civilians and firefighters alike who wanted to know how the Los Angeles Fire Department would handle incidents in the news that have occurred in other areas. Among these incidents were the fire on a Carnival cruise ship and an anthrax threat in Nevada. In the latter case, we issued a media advisory explaining how our haz mat squads would handle such a threat.

Among other emergencies and disasters that can place a fire department on the national media “hot list” are the following:

Incidents involving civil unrest. These events entail using many of the PIO`s skills. During the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, for example, a function of the PIO`s staff was to direct relief firefighters coming into the city to a staging area at Dodger Stadium. They were then transported to their assigned destinations by bus, and with a police escort. We relied on the cooperation of the local radio and television stations to reach these personnel.

These riots illustrated the need for another type of media interaction–that of correcting negative impressions of the fire department unknowingly being disseminated by the media. Rioters at one point were setting structures afire. There were times when four to five structures were ignited within a minute. Several major structures were burning at the same time. Initially, the media had the perception that the fire department was doing nothing to fight these fires. In some instances, they aired tapes showing the structures burning and no fire department on the scene. I went on the air with the television anchor people and explained the scope of the situation and what the fire department was doing to fight the fires–such as triaging the fires so that those most threatening to the neighborhood were responded to first and calling for more help. The media then understood the situation and became allies of the fire department.

Natural disasters. They include earthquakes, wildfires, and floods. Among our most urgent duties during these events is to inform civilians. We alert them when it is time to evacuate and tell them which roads are safe to use.

WITHIN COMMUNITY BORDERS

The PIO and his staff–with around-the-clock commitment–see to it that the public doesn`t take for granted the services the department provides. It is the duty of the PIO`s staff to make sure that their bosses, the taxpayers, are aware of the fire department`s accomplishments.

Every day these firefighters and EMTs are involved in many activities–the expected (structure fires, EMS calls, for example) as well as the unexpected (confined space; urban search and rescue; and, in the LAFD, the helicopter rescue of horses from muddy river beds, for example).

Here in Los Angeles, where the news media is king, the PIO staff responds to the demands of the local media, placing a tremendous demand on our recently reduced staff. We interact with seven television stations; two large daily newspapers; various ethnic newspapers; cable television production staffs such as A&E, The Discovery Channel, and USA Network; and radio broadcast networks. During the course of a year, our office has processed more than 123 press releases; has responded to 51,919 media inquires; and has disseminated to the media and city officials 16,833 notifications of newsworthy incidents. Additionally, it is not unusual for my unit to be asked to consult on or coordinate filming or taping segments in documentaries and special programs involving firefighting or emergency medical activities or to look over scripts for TV producer Aaron Spelling. I recently helped with a Dateline segment, aired nationally in October, on rescuing flood victims.

We have also developed our own web site (http:// www.LAFD.org), which has proved very helpful in promoting many of the department`s objectives. It presents more than 200 pages of material about the LAFD.

The PIO also maintains the master calendar of departmental events and arranges for tours of the dispatch center, headquarters, disaster preparedness units, or other department units for visiting dignitaries from other fire departments. Among the special events coordinated and promoted by our office are fairs and festivals; the Medal of Valor awards; the Firefighter Memorial Service; Fire Service Recognition Day; the Anti-Fireworks Campaign; and other safety programs related to specific seasons–such as Fire Prevention Week, Halloween safety, fire home safety, and smoke detectors in October; swiftwater rescue safety in winter; and heat exhaustion and water safety in July.

THE STAFF

Budget cuts are a constant threat for most public information offices. In our department, the pressure of doing more with less is always a reality. We originally had five firefighters assigned as PIOs. Today, I am the only PIO and work regular business hours at fire department headquarters. My staff consists of three public service officers (PSOs), who work 24-hour shifts at the Operation Control Dispatch Section. Together, they form a network that not only represents the concerns of the LAFD but also is a source of prompt and accurate information that calms and reassures the public in times of emergency.

A PSO, available at the incident scene all times, is an instantaneous source of valid information during a major incident or widespread disaster. The PSO can clarify the fire department`s actions and reduce the probability that the media will speculate or misrepresent our mission.

SKILLS AND QUALIFICATIONS

To be successful in the public information arena, the following skills and attributes are necessary:

Interpersonal communications–the ability to interact with others and to speak effectively and authoritatively to the media on specific incidents.

Oral and written communications–the ability to write effectively and create, revise, and edit documents and scripts.

One of the ways our public relations staff perfects its communications skills is by interviewing each other using a minicam and then critiquing our performance.

The ability to interact with city government officials–to cultivate a relationship between the fire department and the elected officials (they vote on the fire department budget). One way to build a cooperative relationship is to invite them to go along with you on stories that will have a positive effect on the community or a neighborhood.

The ability to manage time–successfully establishing priorities and meeting deadlines.

The ability to organize–being able to attend to a multitude of details simultaneously and to coordinate whatever number of agencies, personnel, press representatives, and dignitaries may be needed to meet the demands of a large-scale event.

In addition, the PIO must be motivated and able to motivate others, be adept at resolving conflicts, be diplomatic, have supervisory skills, and exercise discretion, especially when it comes to maintaining confidentiality.

A proficient PIO has a desire to find out about the good things being done by the department`s firefighters/EMTs. He stays connected to those working in the field–he networks and spends time in the field with them, visits the fire stations, and attends drills. In this way, he can live up to the expectation that the PIO “knows about all issues.”

The PIO is aware that media events can occur at any time. I carry in my vehicle a box of supplies that will support a field media command post–a portable awning, phones, a portable fax, and office supplies. Being prepared can help a long-running incident go more smoothly.

The PIO is undergoing a continual learning process. Ideally, most of the learning will be the result of experience, not mistakes. n



Photos courtesy of the Los Angeles City Fire Department.

n STEPHEN J. RUDA is a 20-year veteran of the Los Angeles City (CA) Fire Department, where he serves as the public information officer and departmental spokesperson. He holds the rank of captain II. His last command was that of task force commander of Fire Station 27, located in the heart of Hollywood. Ruda has had several tours of duty in the inner city and South Central Los Angeles. He has taught at the Fire Academy and is an instructor of fire technology at the community college level. He holds a bachelor of arts in journalism from California State University at Northridge and is working toward certification in public relations from UCLA. Ruda is a keynote speaker in the areas of crisis media management and leadership. He recently prepared a presentation honoring five Los Angeles firefighters killed in the line of duty.

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