News Media at the Scene
We firefighters are often so busy at an emergency scene, we forget that many other people want to know—through the news media— what we’re doing. If reporters can’t get the information they want from us, they’re likely to ask anyone who looks “official” enough to provide answers.
A planned, coordinated system for working with the news media at emergency incidents can guide even the smallest department and address two primary areas of mutual concern and benefit. One, of course, is safety. The other is the timely, complete, and accurate distribution of information, including an organized program for following up after the emergency ends.
A good reference for the fireground duties of a public information sector can be found in the National Fire Academy’s Incident Management Guide. The basics can be covered with a few simple rules, which the Chesterfield (Mo.) Fire Department followed in setting up policies eight years ago that we based on programs already proven elsewhere. When we established our program, we sent a letter and advisory to all of the media outlets that serve our community.
The essentials of the program can easily be adapted to your own situation:
- A public fire educator in the fire marshal’s office is responsible for handling emergency incident information on a continuing basis.
- On the scene, the incident commander will designate one individual to act as the information officer. That officer establishes a public information sector, marked with an odd-colored flashing light for easy identification, close to the command post. Using a public information worksheet (see figure), the incident’s designated press officer can quickly and easily provide answers to every reporter’s standard questions, “Who, what, when, where, why, and how?”
- Because reporters prefer to quote the highest-ranking officer available, the incident commander also gets a copy of the worksheet as quickly as possible.
The worksheet provides answers for the most frequently asked questions: “What caused the fire?” “Who, if anyone, was injured?” “What is the estimated dollar loss?” In the last case, we have an opportunity to express the answer from another perspective, an estimated dollar amount saved as a result of the department’s efforts.
The on-scene incident press officer should stick to the basics listed on the worksheet, double-check the facts, and get approval from the on-scene commander before releasing information to reporters.
Reporters will appreciate the help this approach gives them in meeting deadlines, which are a crucial part of news coverage. During the past several years, the gradual transition from film which required processing to videotape which had to be carried back to the station to live microwave relays has eased the pressure somewhat, but the noon news still starts at noon.
With a news media relations system in place at incidents, you’ll also find other ways to get information across efficiently. In December 1985, for example, our portable cellular telephone allowed us to alert reporters and photographers that both the crucial fire involvement and our command post were at the rear of a burning supermarket.
Afterward, the press officer or the public fire educator can follow up, calling the news media to tell them the cause of the fire. This is especially important when the cause appears to have been of suspicious origins. In every case, the news media will then have a simple, clear file with information on the incident.
The other benefit of the system is safety. As arriving members of the news media come to your incident press officer at the scene, you can provide them with information on specific hazards and off-limits areas. One excellent reason to ask the press to check in with you at the scene has to do with the unexpected: If a wall collapses or some other disaster occurs, you’ll know how many extra people besides firefighters are in the immediate area.
After the incident, include in your calls any news media outlets that didn’t cover the event. Radio stations are usually happy to be able to tape a phone conversation for use as part of their newscasts: The voice of authority may well be enough to get your work some news coverage you wouldn’t otherwise receive. Be certain to have your public information worksheet as your reference on the facts.
When you take the time and make the effort to use this simple system to release information at emergencies, you help the news media do their job as efficiently and effectively as you work to do yours.
The future benefits will be dramatic. When you have an important fire safety story to tell, the foundation of your good working relationship will be an important help to you.
No one knows the firefighter’s job better than a firefighter. When you make the experience easy for the press to tell, you and your profession will be the beneficiaries.