PR lessons from the line-of-duty death of a friend

June 27, 2011 at 11:40 am 3 comments

In addition to my public relations counseling practice, I’m a firefighter and emergency medical technician in my home town. Yes, I operate the apparatus, go into burning buildings and take care of sick or hurt people, but as you might expect, I’m also the public information officer.

 Our department provides both fire protection and emergency medical services. On May 31, I responded to call for an unresponsive child. Such a report is bound to bring every available firefighter and EMT to the scene. Among the responders was Assistant Fire Chief Tom Shields. In addition to being a chief, Tom was a close friend.

Within an hour of clearing the call, Tom suffered a heart attack and died at the young age of 42. He left behind a wife – also a good friend — and two sons. The fire service recognizes death by heart attack within 24 hours of a call as a line-of-duty death.

Over the next five days, I juggled my grief and the responsibilities of public information officer. While the situation is not unlike the death of a CEO with whom a public relations exec is also a friend, Tom’s death brought a lot of extra visibility to our department. State and county fire officials as well as representatives of other agencies with whom we regularly worked swooped in to help us with the arrangements, mental health issues, coordinating the help and condolences we received from other fire and EMS agencies, and investigations that come with a line-of-duty death. They also established a command post because other departments took care of fighting fires in our area for those few days. Everybody we dealt with was sensitive and helpful. As PIO, I was in the thick of everything.

In addition to being a great guy, a good administrator and a sharp fireground tactician, Tom was an excellent teacher. In the relative quiet since those five crazy days, I’ve thought about the lessons this incident has taught me. He would want me to share those with other PIOs and public relations practitioners. Here are the Top 5 things Tom taught me through this experience:

  1. Catch your breath and acknowledge your pain. We PR types immediately think of the communications needs of our client organizations. OK. But stop and take care of your own needs first. There’s nothing wrong with a little private mourning before you make your plan and offer your counsel. And find ample time to take care for yourself during the situation. 
  2. Be patient. You know that the questions are going to come, but the people with whom you’re working are dealing with the situation in their own way. Their perspective is different than yours. Give them space, especially in the first few hours. Let them know you’re there and protect them from being caught off-guard, but give them the time they need. If you’ve built a good relationship with them, they’ll soon recognize the importance of your role and be ready to listen.
  3.  It’s OK to be human. A PIO can’t wear his or her heart on his or her sleeve, but I’ve come to realize that nobody will think less of us if a little genuine emotion breaks through while the pain is fresh. While talking with Star Ledger reporter Dan Goldberg, who regularly covers our department, the dispatcher announced Tom’s passing on the fire department radio. I choked up. I don’t remember exactly what Dan said at that moment, but he gave me the moment or two that I needed. Would another reporter have done the same? I hope so. But I really don’t care. I’m human and my friend was dead. I’ve decided there was nothing for me to be embarrassed about. 
  4.  Don’t lose track of all the rules of good crisis management. I stayed informed of what else was being done, pitched in where I could and worked with our county fire administrator to determine if a joint information center (a sort of multiagency press room) was necessary. We decided it wasn’t. But we ran our communications program just as every crisis management textbook says to do. My existing relationships with area media paid off and the media training we’d done in the firehouse was evident. 
  5. Get help. After four days of handling things on my own, I decided I didn’t want to be a PIO during Tom’s funeral. I reached into my network and Mary Danielsen, principal of Documented Legacy and a great public relations person, came to back me up. During the funeral, she took photos, charmed the hell out of everyone in the command post and made sure reporters and photographers got what they needed without bothering Tom’s family. It was a relief to have her there and I realized I should have asked for help earlier.

Tom believed in learning from every experience. I hope I never have to be PIO for a line-of-duty death again, especially if a friend is involved. But, I’ve learned a few valuable things that I’ll apply to any situation where I’m the guy doing the communicating.

Have you dealt with a similar situation? What other lessons should we add?


Entry filed under: crisis communications, Flanders Fire PIO. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

I’m accredited for another 3 years — here’s why that’s good From How PR is Getting Better.


  • 1. Leslie C  |  June 27, 2011 at 11:53 am

    Doug … you are true gentleman, a true professional and a true friend. This post proves what I already knew about you in such a way that I stopped to think about my own times in this space. I’ve been there too – working in the utility business for almost my entire career – I’ve had to cover the fatalities of co-workers on the job. To me, the “it’s okay to be human” really resonates along with the “ask for help.” Sometimes you just are more human than professional when things hit that tough spot … knowing when you have to step away is always key. You are a man in our profession who has taught me so much – and thanks for sharing your wisdom once again. My thoughts and prayers are with Tom and his family and friends.

  • 2. Greg Friese  |  June 28, 2011 at 9:20 am

    Outstanding post. Thanks for sharing your lessons learned and paying tribute to your friend. I also see in your post a set of lessons applied – things you have learned in other crisis situations that you were able to apply in this crisis situation.

    Did your department have a social media presence before Tom’s death and was that useful as part of the crisis communications?

    • 3. dougtheprguy  |  June 28, 2011 at 9:51 am

      Thanks for your comments,Greg. We have a Web site and Facebook page. The Facebook page had some of the informatin on it and the releases that I distributed were placed on there, but we did not use social media to its fullest extent.



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