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Fire Departments in Media Spotlight

Photo AP/Stefano Paltera
Los Angeles County Fire Chief Michael Freeman, center, is surrounded by media following a fire in Malibu in January.

From a media perspective, fires make great news, and newspapers, radio and TV stations and now Internet news sites are never shy about covering the latest four-alarm blaze.

While it’s fun to watch your department extinguish a fire on the 6 o’clock news, typical media coverage of fires and other response incidents doesn’t always hit the right mark in terms of communicating key messages to the community.

For fire departments, getting media coverage is easy, but utilizing the media to suit your department’s purposes is more complicated.

Safety messages are often buried in coverage, making it vital for fire departments to be proactive in promoting prevention.

A report released earlier this year showed that while newspapers gave extensive coverage to residential fires, only a few reports included any prevention information.

Katherine Clegg Smith, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, said the study was carried out to find ways to reduce deaths and injuries in house fires through safety messages.

Interview Tips

Emmy Award-winning TV reporter Russell Ruffin, who now runs a media training group, offers these tips on handling news conferences and interviews:

  • Decide on a message and stick to it
  • Keep your message simple, short and to the point
  • Don’t let your news conference or interview drift off subject
  • Don’t become angry with questioners
  • Don’t appear annoyed by questions
  • When asked a negative question, don’t repeat the negative, instead give a positive response
  • When in doubt, take the high road
  • Rehearse your interview/news conference with family, friends or associates
  • Close by reiterating the main points you would like to emphasize

“We wanted to see firstly how residential fires were being conveyed in the news media — if at all — and second, whether prevention and public health messages were there as well,” said Clegg Smith, who helped lead the study.

The study analyzed articles from four newspapers — The Capital Annapolis, The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post and The Washington Times — widely circulated in the Baltimore area over a 12-month period.

It found that while residential fires were extensively reported, only 36.4 percent of fire-related news coverage included any kind of prevention information.

The report concluded that:
• Discussing prevention strategies is not the norm, no matter how the fire is caused
• The most likely cause reported to include a safety message is for fires started by matches, lighters or candles (45.8 percent).
• Only about 22 percent of fire-related news coverage includes any public health context for the fire issue being discussed

It added that news coverage of current fire events offers regular opportunities for public education about prevention strategies that are currently not being utilized.

“Sometimes the prevention message is getting out, but we would like to see a clearer prevention message in every single article,” Clegg Smith said.

However, the major question is how to ensure more articles — and TV and radio reports — include prevention and safety advice.

A follow-up study, said Clegg Smith, will look at whether fire departments are failing to provide information in the right manner or the media is failing to consistently include it in its coverage.

She said a positive sign is that the communication channel seems to already be good.

“The most surprising thing for us in the study, which was actually a good surprise, was the fact that in 96 percent of the articles, someone from the fire department was called upon to give a comment,” Clegg Smith said.

Greater demand
The demand for comments to the media is growing all the time. With the advent of the Internet and 24-hour news channels, firefighters — and PIOS, in particular — are having to become more and more media savvy.

Emmy Award-winning television news veteran Russell Ruffin, who has worked for NBC News and its affiliates for more than 30 years, now runs Law Enforcement Media Training, which hosts seminars and workshops across the country.

Its sessions are angled to all first responders, including firefighters.

“The key thing in dealing with the media is knowing how to effectively communicate with them,” said Ruffin. “I know there are some fire departments which don’t even like to talk with the news media.”

But the departments that utilize and work with the media, said Ruffin, are normally the ones that have the best public perception.

“These are the ones people look up to,” he said, “because they promote what they do and give the impression they are part of the community.”

‘Mutual distrust’
Fire departments and media often have a mutual distrust of each other, according to Ruffin.

He said the key is to build relationships, by holding informal meetings, inviting journalists to see stations or even arranging to have meals together so issues and queries can be discussed in a relaxed atmosphere.

Having a PIO who is open-minded of the media is also vital, he added.

“A lot of times in the past, departments would appoint someone who hated the media, who would try to put them off,” said Ruffin.

PIO Tips

PIO Pete Piringer offers these tips for those in regular contact with the media:

  • If you don’t want it in print, don’t say it
  • Never say, “No comment”
  • Avoid being outwardly hostile toward the media
  • Always convey that you are trying to help the media
  • Be organized, be in charge
  • Avoid the appearance of a cover-up
  • Never change the ground rules in the middle of the game
  • Don’t assume the interview is over until the crew drives away
  • Never wear dark glasses during an interview

“Having someone who is open-minded and who recognizes the importance of the media means the media can be used to get a lot of positive coverage that the department might not have gotten before.”

He added that a proactive way to get good publicity was to always invite media to training sessions and open days, especially at weekends.

Many media outlets are hungriest for news on Monday, so there’s a high chance they will run your event.

A PIO for more than 15 years, Pete Piringer, of Montgomery County, Md., Fire & Rescue Services, knows the importance of developing good relationships with media outlets.

“Basic things like returning phone calls are important and help form good relationships,” he said. “It should go without saying that you are accessible and have integrity.”

Piringer said he tried to treat all outlets the same, and not to have favorites.

He suggested remembering three simple rules:
• You are a resource for the media
• It’s never personal
• The media can change the rules, but you can’t

PIOs and all firefighters have to remember they are in the public eye, Piringer said.

“We need to remember that a lot of what we do is customer service- and community-oriented,” he said.

Related Resources:

Commonly asked questions by journalists during a crisis

Campus FireWatch’s catastrophic fire press release template

Mayor Donna Holaday presented the city’s desire to operate its own ambulance service staffed by firefighters already trained as EMTs