June Roundtable: Censorship

I have recently become aware of several instances where a line-of-duty death occurred and firefighters were ordered not to give any reports or make any statements to the media concerning the incident. Does a fire department administration, or even a city administration, have the right to prevent members from speaking their mind in view of the First Amendment, which protects the right to free speech?

In the Toledo (OH) Fire Department, we had a few “complicated” incidents dealing with firefighter injuries, civilian fatalities, and major dollar property losses. Our members were directed not to give any information controversial or detrimental to the department to anyone outside of the department–in fact, it was a rule in the Toledo Fire and Rescue Department rule book. The union president, who is a fire department member, could make statements provided that he spoke as a union representative. —John “Skip” Coleman, retired as assistant chief from the Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue. He is a technical editor of Fire Engineering; a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board; and author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997), Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), and Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer, Second Edition (Fire Engineering, 2008).

Question: Should a fire department have the right to censor firefighters’ comments to the media or public after a firefighter fatality or near miss?

Thomas Dunne, deputy chief,
Fire Department of New York
In the event of a fatality, a fire department should absolutely limit a firefighter’s comments to the media or public. Such an occurrence is an emotional trauma to a family, a fire company, and to an entire organization. At the same time, it is an event that calls for a controlled and detailed analysis of what occurred and what can be done to prevent it from happening again.

Given the psychological and legal aspects involved, it is important to limit specific comments until the investigation is completed. Safety lessons learned should be shared as soon as they are uncovered, but, as we have seen, the legal issues can go on for years.

A near-miss incident should be viewed as a learning opportunity. Again, this is often best handled through an in-depth study by the department’s safety officers. If, however, there are serious issues within a department that may have contributed to the near miss (i.e., staffing levels or apparatus reliability), it may be necessary to educate the public about the need for change. In this process, firefighters, management, and union officials must avoid the trap of making emotional or political comments and should base, their statements on objective facts.

In our line of work, we sometimes have to walk a fine line between the right to free speech and the need for a precise and fair analysis of a death or close call.

Robert Metzger, chief,
Golden Gate (FL) Fire District
Every fire department should have a media policy that clearly describes who is eligible to speak to the media, and in what capacity. Although many fire departments maintain policies stating that any statements to the media must be cleared by administration or an incident commander, it is highly likely that aspects of such policies could be unenforceable when scrutinized under the First Amendment. The nature of the statement would determine whether it is protected speech. Union officials have a relatively free hand to comment to the media, as long as they identify themselves as union leaders and they are speaking in that capacity. Employee firefighters have a more limited right, but it is not wholly restricted. What must be enforced is that all statements be factually correct.

In the extremely difficult situation of a firefighter fatality, the media will seek out firefighters for reactions. It is wise to assemble all interested parties to discuss any concerns about the event. This is not censorship; it’s merely establishing the facts so that everyone understands what occurred.

Gary Seidel, chief,
Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department
We address this issue on two fronts. The first, through the adoption of the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which we use on any incident/event. Information is released only with the incident commander’s (IC) approval. The IC also can designate a public information officer (PIO), who is responsible for providing a single point of information for all media. The PIO also obtains the IC’s approval prior to releasing the information.

Second, the department has policies and procedures governing the release of information as it pertains to the department’s administration or operations. No member may release information without authorization from the chief or his designee. In addition, we have comprehensive procedures for handling a serious injury/death of a member. Duties and responsibilities with regard to this function are defined, and any information released is strictly coordinated before the release is approved. We must also realize that union leadership will have concerns; the union and management should work collaboratively on a communication strategy as well as on notifications to significant others.

Christopher J. Weir, division chief,
Port Orange (FL) Fire & Rescue
Our PIO handles all public information releases subject to approval by fire chief or designee. The channel of information should be a single conduit of official information to the media–one statement, one position. When tragedy strikes one of our own or serious injury occurs, emotions run high. If we do not maintain managed information, there will be numerous accounts of what occurred if the media speaks to multiple personnel “off the record” and gets differing sides of the story. What a mess that would be for damage control.

Billy Goldfeder, deputy chief,
Loveland-Symmes (OH) Fire Department
The organization has a responsibility to systematically, fairly, legally, and appropriately determine the facts, which then should include all affected or witnessing firefighters’ comments. If management handles the matter in an open, fair, and legal manner, no one should have to worry that all of the facts won’t come out. However, members speaking out immediately during or right after a highly emotional tragic event can often have negative repercussions at many levels. I am not suggesting the facts shouldn’t come out. I know from experience that timing can make a huge difference in making sure all the facts come out, are received, and have the best possible impact on all affected. It is when departments or leadership fails to be open and fair that members may feel the need, or even feel that they are forced, to speak out.

Craig H. Shelley, technical advisor,
Fire Protection Department
Dhahran, Saudi Arabia
Although everyone is entitled to free speech, there must be limits when dealing with sensitive issues in the fire service such as near-misses or firefighter fatalities. Every firefighter I ever knew has an opinion on every subject. When dealing with sensitive issues, what is said in a well-intentioned–or for that matter–a not-so-well-intentioned manner becomes a matter of record and can be used in a court of law. If a statement made publicly is incorrect, it still has the effect of molding public opinion one way or another. In the long run, this may be detrimental to the department in a future legal case. A department can restrict what members are allowed to say after incidents because it becomes part of the official record. Firefighters and fire officers should refer all requests for communications to the department’s public information office. Firefighters have an obligation to allow the investigation to proceed unimpeded and have the department be the source of information. Conversely, the department brass has an obligation to thoroughly and objectively conduct an investigation and truthfully provide information.

Jim Mason, lieutenant,
Chicago (IL) Fire Department
Firefighter fatalities and near misses are high-stress events, not just for the members involved but also for the entire community. Firefighters and civilians can expect to feel the pain from the loss. These events will often be photographed or even videotaped and broadcasted over and over again, reminding us of our sadness and anger. All of this can make going to the media seem justified for the purpose of laying blame so the healing can begin. After such incidents, it is best to speak with as few voices as possible. Members should be united and not comment to the media so the best can be made of a bad situation–a change for a safer future.

This is not to say that firefighters should not go to the media. Responsible leaders will look closely at how to prevent a similar type of fatality or near miss in the future. If the changes needed are being swept under the rug, firefighters may have to choose a representative to speak to the news media. This should be done only after trying every available internal path to change and out of respect for the name and memory of the lost member. Restricting firefighters from commenting to the media should not be labeled censorship. It is to prevent varying versions of the issues from reaching the media and the public, which could distract from the goal of preventing such incidents in the future.

Elby Bushong III, deputy chief,
Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department
Every fire department should control or censor responses during these extremely difficult events. The information delivered to the public and the members needs to be factual. This is difficult. It takes time to thoroughly process all the facts. The firefighters may have differing points of view, depending on their location or function at the time of the incident. Gathering facts and information for the timeline must be done carefully to ensure they are accurate. The family and friends of the injured or deceased firefighter deserve professionalism from the whole organization. Union and management need the time to work through the process together without unnecessary issues that may arise from inaccurate information. Professionalism during the investigation and the recovery process is critical for the members as well as the public. That is the reason our department’s Public Information Section will not release statements about a near miss or fatality until the investigation has been completed.

Michael T. Metro, assistant chief,
Los Angeles County (CA) Fire Department
Our department has a policy that states that the IC must approve public media releases on any incident, including a near miss or fatality.

Koll Andersen, firefighter,
Seattle (WA) Fire Department
“Censorship” can be scary; however, it benefits firefighters, departments, cities, and counties as well as friends and families if we take the time to grieve and mourn the loss of a brother or a sister before we start making comments to the media. These events bring a lot of emotions, and comments made under emotional distress are not always accurate. Things said in the media are not always represented the way we want them to be and may easily be misunderstood. Once things in the media are broadcast, they seem to be permanent. The media appear more interested in capturing the headlines and the drama and less interested in protecting the interests of those they interview or the agencies affected. We are better off taking our time to prepare intelligent, factual comments that accurately represent what is going on.

That being said, I do not think that departments should be able to “censor” what firefighters say to the media. We should collectively self-monitor our communications to the media and, if necessary, establish a process for providing comments. If a comment is to be made after the investigation is concluded and conclusions are made, take your time and choose your words carefully.

Mike Bucy, assistant chief,
Portage (IN) Fire Department
Censorship always portrays that something is being hidden. However, letting someone speak on his own-especially after an emotionally charged event-can have serious and unintended consequences. Departments need to be prepared for this in advance-teach classes on media relations to all department members, not just a select few. The firefighter must be educated in what could cause further distress to the department and families involved. If firefighters are allowed to speak, they should do so in a controlled event. Hiring a third party to control the situation (not the words) might be a good thing. It takes the emotional element away. If firefighters speak outside of the department’s grasp, each case must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. On the other hand some departments will hide everything–and worse, not change the problems encountered. This is an area in which firefighters need protection when they speak up. We all make mistakes. Admitting them is a good thing; hiding them is the worst thing you can do.

Jeff Cappe, training coordinator,
State of Idaho
Fire departments should be able to censor firefighters’ comments to the media or public after a firefighter fatality or near miss. However, there has to be some restrictions on the fire department as well.
After spending 20-plus years in the fire services, you can count on several things. One is that firefighters will spread rumors. The second thing is that they are grossly inaccurate.

Media releases should be made only by the authority having jurisdiction of the incident. However in all cases, a representative of the firefighters’ group must be involved in preparing the release and in reviewing any investigation before policies are changed or developed. This is just good management.

We also know that the media are not interested in events that lack sensationalism. This has to be taken into account when management, labor, or individual employees field media inquiries.

Tony Tricarico, captain,
Fire Department of New York
: We are all aware that sometimes emotions run high when participating in one of these events and at times people may allow emotions to dictate what they say. It serves the entire department well to have designated PIOs or chief officers speak after gathering the facts. As we all know, the press has used our own words against us before. We are better off choosing our words very carefully. As my grandmother used to say, “Words are like bullets; once they are spoken, you can never really take them back.”

Andy Marsh, captain,
Mt. Oliver (PA) Fire Department
There is a fine line between freedom of speech and speaking on behalf of a department. Words can be equally detrimental or favorable. There were incidents where “someone” had spoken “incorrectly.” During any incident, this can be misleading. At the department level, a PIO needs to be appointed. When PIOs are not possible, the IC should disseminate the information. The risk is when firefighter #1 spouts off, who’s to say that firefighters #2 and #3 won’t follow suit? Are those opinions, or facts? Fire department administrations should be granted some right to censor and discipline what a member says. If the firefighter speaks as a citizen, representing only himself, freedom of speech applies. The danger is that statements provided before a thorough investigation is complete can be detrimental to the department and affect the deceased or injured firefighter’s family. When an issue involves us, keep it in house. There are steps we can take internally to change personnel and policies. We are already airing our uncensored “issues” in what we think are “Firefighting Only” forums. Pretty soon, someone will start paying attention. The media are known to cut out, take out of context, or misquote. Be careful what you say.

Warren Jorgenson, lieutenant (ret.),
Willmar, MN
I submit the following:

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan.
FRENCHTOWN CHARTER TOWNSHIP, Defendant. No. 2002-601456.
Jan. 27, 2003.

The firefighters association brought action against the township, alleging that township ordinance and fire department personnel policy violated the First Amendment by restricting fire department employees’ communications with the media and public. The Association moved for summary judgment. The District Court, Battani, J., held that: (1) firefighters’ speech dealing with business or policy affairs of fire department, as well that addressing state code violations within fire department, were matters of public concern under First Amendment free speech analysis; (2) heightened level of scrutiny set forth in National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), rather than Pickering standard, applied to evaluation of ordinance and personnel policy; and (3) as a matter of first impression, ordinance and personnel policy were unjustified prior restraints in violation of firefighters’ First Amendment rights to comment on matters of public concern.

Motion granted.

Chris Ferrell, firefighter,
Woodstock (Ont. Can.) Fire Department
There is no question about it: We live in the information age. The media are lurking around every corner looking for that “sound bite” or “scoop.”

Our fire department and our association have strict guidelines when it comes to interacting with the media. A line-of-duty death needs to be carefully presented to the media. Asking firefighters to direct the media to the appropriate officials is not censorship. The very delicate task of explaining the situation to the media should come from one unified source. Maintaining a professional appearance is very important to the credibility of the department and association. We wouldn’t want the wrong information being put out there. Family and friends could be seriously affected by the wrong information. When off duty and not representing the association, firefighters should be accountable for what they are saying to the media. Even though they have the right to free speech, it doesn’t mean that they should present potentially damaging information to the media.

There is a time and place for discussions on such information; it should not be done in a public forum until all matters are dealt with. As a firefighter, I would never want to be put in a situation where comments I had made to the media caused more pain and suffering to the family and friends of a firefighter or victim. Without question, this would be the lowest point of anyone’s career.

Michael McKinney, chief medical training officer,
Douro/Dummer (Ont., Can.) Fire Rescue
I think that the fire chiefs think they know best, yet I find they do not want a firefighter to talk to the press because they may make waves, which could open up a whole new outside investigation. I think everyone deserves to know the truth because keeping it in-house many times does not fix the cause of the incident, Allowing only the chief or his appointees to talk seems to cover up the complete truth to save face. If we have firsthand knowledge, we should be allowed to talk to the press if one of our brothers and friends dies and we want and need to speak out. It is one of our basic freedoms.

Jude Richardson, firefighter,
Hepburn Township (PA) Volunteer Fire Company
Providing information to the media should be limited to those designated for disseminating information. Things happen. Through training and practice, we attempt to minimize errors, but we cannot predict all the events that might occur in emergencies. Worse than making a bad decision in an emergency would be the inability or the fear of making any decision.

The military, hospitals, or emergency services would become dysfunctional if all the privates in the world were encouraged to publicly critique superior decisions. That is the reason we leave the decision-making to those with proven leadership ability and background. When our leaders are appointed based on politics, and not by qualifications, that is a topic for another discussion.

Scott Brady, deputy chief,
Hartford (CT) Fire Department
Censoring firefighter’s voices will ultimately be detrimental to the department, its mission, and the public it serves. There is nothing we do as a fire department that requires secrecy.

A previous chief of department once issued a blanket gag order forbidding any department member from commenting to the public or media without prior approval of his office, regardless of whether the member was on or off duty. The policy was quickly rescinded after the local union raised the freedom of speech issue. Since then, the department has issued guidelines concerning speaking with the public or media regarding fire department issues.

On-duty members are allowed to comment regarding fireground actions only. Code enforcement issues or information pertaining to fire investigation comes from the appropriate division spokesperson after determining that it will not impact the investigation. Off-duty speech has not been challenged as long as it has not jeopardized investigations or released information required to be protected under regulations and statutes.

This policy can occasionally lead to statements that are critical or unflattering to the department, its administration, or its members; however, that provides an opportunity for a review of policies, guidelines, and procedures to ensure they are effective, efficient, and meet the citizens’ needs. Overall, this type of discourse and review creates a more effective and healthy department and does not impinge on the constitutional rights of its members.

Scott Widmar, assistant chief,
Rock River Twp. (MI) Fire Department
Departments should be able to control what is said to the public and to the press. All department members should fall under the guidelines set forth in department SOGs. Our department adopted the Incident Command System years ago and also set up an SOG stating that all members are obligated to abide by that system. Part of the ICS command structure allows for the designation of a PIO, who should be the only one to pass information along to the public and the media. With the number of lawsuits soaring and the media’s ever increasing vigor to “make the headlines,” whether it is the truth or not, it is now more important than ever to make sure that only accurate facts get released. This is not censorship. This is just good business. Fire departments need to operate like a business. Businesses are not democracies; neither are effective fire departments.

Brian Zaitz, firefighter/paramedic,
Metro West (MO) Fire Protection District
It is critical that information be released in a timely and consistent manner; therefore, firefighters should be censored when it comes to commenting to the media. Events such as LODDs or even near misses arouse emotions, and comments made during the moments immediately following may be inaccurate. It is important not only for good command structure but also for data continuity that all media releases come from one source, a designated PIO for the incident. This individual should establish a staging area for media away from the scene so there is no interference with scene mitigation, and to avoid unnecessary contact with firefighters on-scene. The PIO should work with the IC and determine what information will be disseminated and what information will be withheld until a later time. The media are resourceful tools or the fire service; it is key to have a good working relationship with them prior to incidents.

Brandon Earley, firefighter/EMT,
Bella Vista (AR) Fire Department
All comments should be made through the department PIO or a chief officer. If all the firefighters make comments, the story could get very twisted, and the media may have several different stories, causing them to go back to that fire department and start asking questions. If information gets passed back to the PIO through the chain of command, the PIO can present the media with one statement covering what happened during the incident. Furthermore, the victim’s family should not learn about a family member’s death from the media. Holding all comments made by the firefighters would ensure that the firefighters’ family has been notified and that things are already in the works to help them out. Censorship is not the best word to use–maybe respect and dignity for our fellow brothers and sisters would be a better way to describe it.

Joel Holbrook, captain,
Washington Township (OH) Fire Department
I am an advocate of free speech and open communications, but, in an instance where a near miss or an LODD has occurred, the department has a right and a responsibility to limit, or even prohibit, members from making statements to the media. These are very sensitive matters. They must be investigated and reported on in a completely objective manner. There is no room for speculation or rumors. If a fire department does not have a media plan in place, it is asking for trouble. My department has an assigned PIO. If he is not available, the senior administrative officer or IC may give a statement of only facts; there is absolutely zero tolerance for speculation. Firefighters are not permitted to speak to the media for any reason without expressed permission from the fire chief. It’s amazing how much a few words cut and pasted into a story or a two-second video clip cut and pasted into a news report can impact an agency’s image and credibility. The media can be our best friends or our worst enemies, so be wise concerning your words and your actions. Everyone is watching.

Brian Ward, training officer,
Gwinnett County (GA) Fire and Emergency Services
Yes, but with good reasoning. I am all for free speech and learning from past accidents to prevent repeating them, but when an injury or a death occurs, it is a very delicate matter that should be handled with caution. First and above all, think about and respect the family. Second, there may be legal implications, so make sure that the facts are straight. There should be no second- and third-hand media interviews; everything should funnel through the PIO to ensure that all of the information is factual. If there is any doubt about what happened, a full, nonbiased investigation of the accident must be conducted. This should disclose all of the information in an objective and factual manner without faultfinding or placing blame.

Scott Kahn, captain,
Torrance (CA) Fire Department
In a department that has had a near miss or a firefighter fatality, the desire to hush up the rank and file sometimes is indicative of the fact that the department does not have adequate policies to avoid or minimize the injuries or does not take advantage of the tools and technology available. Members, frustrated because they have been pushing for changes in policies and have been stonewalled or put off for other more pressing problems, may want to speak out to the public or media because of their anger: “Hey, this could be me or my crew, and I want to go home in the morning.”

A department that has up-to-date policies, procedures, and operational guidelines that were developed cooperatively by administration and operations speak with one voice to the media and the public when a close call or fatality strikes. Lashing out or trying to silence outspoken voices during these times is the result of fear and an understanding that a failure to address and keep up-to-date guidelines that support operations that keep firefighters safe has come home to roost.

Michael Coleman, instructor,
Pemberton Twp., NJ
The worst thing a firefighter can do is to make a statement after the death of a fellow firefighter, especially one in his department. The emotional level is high, and we cannot control what individual firefighters might say, which could affect the investigation. Those closest to the incident should be isolated, and incident stress management should be initiated, regardless of how brave a front firefighters try to project. The media should be kept at bay until an official statement can be made.

Jacob Waldschmidt, firefighter/paramedic,
Kenosha (WI) Fire Department
It is necessary to censor fire department personnel, except for the chief or designated PIO, during these sensitive situations. We tell our new firefighters when they come into the department that fire department personnel do not make statements to the media or the public regarding fire department business. This is especially important when it comes to a fatality or near-miss situation because emotional levels are going to be high. This would be an appropriate time for the chief or PIO to read a prepared statement. This allows the leader of the department to step forward and show a united, strong department. The firefighter’s family members do not need or want an emotional tirade about failed firefighting operations or fault-finding statements. They need to be consoled and assisted in getting through this tough time. If there is a policy prohibiting fire department personnel from making statements to the media or public, that policy should be strictly enforced.

Subject: Firefighters making public statements to the media, fire department censorship

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