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The post 9/11 PIO

Sept. 11 and advancing communication technology forever changed the job of the fire department public information officer

There’s an old saying that everything changes over time. Then, there are those events when everything seemingly changes in the blink of an eye. And, as technology changes, so do we.

Society has become so technologically advanced, that information can’t get to us fast enough. Our children are growing up in an age of where information is only a cell phone or application away.

Think about Paul Revere’s famous ride through the streets of Boston to warn of the British invasion. That was about as fast as the informational highway could go — besides a cannonball ripping through the air. As technology advanced, we were able to learn of events such as the attack on Pearl Harbor and the assassination of President Kennedy much more quickly.

The day that changed everything
And then came Sept. 11, 2001. We were all glued to the televisions as we learned of the first plane hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center. We watched live as the second airliner came out of nowhere and struck the South Tower.

We scrambled to get as much information as possible, scared and knowing that our homeland was under attack.

Twelve years after 9/11, technology has continued to advance to where we learn of events almost instantly, and in fact, we’ve come to expect it. The social media resources that we use almost every day didn’t exist on 9/11. Facebook wasn’t formed until 2004 and Twitter wan’t created until 2006.

Today, information is posted almost instantly on these two media outlets from the “public reporters.” And, with the further development of camera phones with video capability, you can find yourself on YouTube within seconds.

PIO’s new role
In today’s world, the public information officer has a huge role in getting information out to the media — and to the public. While 9/11 changed America almost instantly, other events such as the shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., as well as the Boston Marathon bombings and the suspects’ subsequent capture as it played out on TV, have placed greater emphasis on the “now” factor.

It is more important than ever for today’s PIO to be accessible, engaged and connected.

Accessibility is something that I really came to understand while working in Washington. The multiple media outlets that we dealt with daily needed access to you almost instantly. Working in high-pressure markets such as D.C., reporters and their producers have tight deadlines, but also compete to get the story.

Even now volunteering as the PIO for Gulf Shores (Ala.) Fire Rescue, that hasn’t changed. Big town or small town, deadlines are deadlines and your reputation is at stake. PIOs should provide their contact information and be accessible for correspondence whether it be via phone, email or text.

Getting to know you
Engagement with the media is something that many fire service professionals tend to overlook. Meeting with them before the event occurs helps foster relationships that can be beneficial to both parties.

Knowing who they are, when their deadlines are, and even developing an instinct of what some tricky ones may have up their sleeve, can help you develop a communications plan for events that occur in any town.

Not only should they have your contact information, but you should have the contact information for the reporters and producers who cover your agency. The value of being able to reach out to them in your time of need can’t be expressed enough.

Being connected to technology is imperative. While some are still fearful of social media, it can often be your best way of communicating with the public and the media.

I can recall when we first launched the DCFD Facebook page and I responded to a large water main break that flooded several businesses near U Street, NW. I had a simple flip cam (prior to high-definition cameras) and recorded the water flowing freely down the street as it entered buildings long before any media outlet arrived. In fact, by time they arrived, the water was shut off and clean-up operations were well under way.

I simply loaded the video on to our Facebook page and advised the media to go there to get it once my on-scene interviews were complete. In 2008, that seemed like cutting edge technology for us. Today, most everyone is already doing that for social fun.

Finger on the pulse
But, you also must stay connected to what is going on in your profession, your community, and your department. I learned first-hand in D.C. that there was a good bit of information flowing to the media through the blog sites.

While firefighters may think that some of them are the only ones reading it, the public and elected officials also have access to it, as does the media. A majority of our time in D.C. was spent managing blog information that was sometimes truthful, but often untruthful and devastating to the organization.

Being accessible to answer the questions, engaged with the media to build positive relationships, and connected to what was being said gave us considerable leverage in controlling the non-story.

Our world has changed since 9/11. The threats we face, the society we have become, and the technology we use are all a part of this new day. PIOs must learn what has worked in the past, but become prepared for what we will face tomorrow.

It doesn’t have to be New York or Washington. A smaller event in a smaller town can have just as big an impact. As such, the media and public will be expecting you to deliver the information. What are you prepared to do?

Billy D. Hayes retired as fire chief for the City of Onalaska, Wisconsin, in 2020. He previously served as the fire marshal for the University of South Alabama, vice president of university relations for Columbia Southern University, the director of community affairs for the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department, and as the fire chief and emergency management coordinator for the City of Riverdale, Georgia. He is a graduate of Georgia Military College and Columbia Southern University, the NFA’s Executive Fire Officer Program, and has a certificate in local government management from the University of Georgia. Hayes is a past president of the Metro Atlanta Fire Chiefs Association and past chairman of the board for the Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation. He authored the Public Fire and Life Safety Education chapter of “The Fire Chief’s Handbook” (7th Edition). Hayes is a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. Connect with Hayes on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.