Posts filed under ‘Flanders Fire PIO’

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

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?


June 27, 2011 at 11:40 am 3 comments

Secret to a successful CSR event: Believe!

Every now and again, I get to brag about my clients. It’s been a good month for doing community relations work that demonstrates that organizations with which I work have a conscience and like doing something for the community.

My big client, of course, is K. Hovnanian Homes. The company also is my employer. It has been working to strike the balance between pushing ahead with a popular community it’s building in Woodland Park, N.J., and protecting and preserving an important piece of history there. The company has entered an agreement with the New Jersey State Museum to identify and preserve dinosaur tracks and other items of geologic interest. You can read out it here:

Meanwhile, a few days after announcing the relationship with the museum and showing off the rock with the dinosaur track, the company sponsored the third Ride for a Child’s Hope in New Windsor, N.Y., to raise money for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County, N.Y.

My favorite client – Jockey Hollow Dentistry (a.k.a. my wife’s dental practice) is also doing something good for the community.  She is taking part in Operation Gratitude, and buying back children’s Halloween candy. She’ll then take the candy, along with any donated candy and some dental supplies, pack it all up and send it to Operation Gratitude, which will then send it to our troops serving overseas. Read about it here:

And last, but far from least, are my brothers and sisters at the Flanders Fire Company and Rescue Squad. After some false starts, we finally got to show off our pink T-shirts and our membership in the Guardians of the Ribbon. ( )  Firehouses are pretty macho places, and getting guys to wear pink is supposed to be difficult. But our firefighters jumped to join this group. As part of the Guardian of the Ribbon program, the whole fire company has agreed to do what it can to show its support for local women with cancer. The night we took the photo that went the release, we were helping some Boy Scouts earn their fire safety merit badge. Lt. Melissa Widzemok talked to the boys, explaining our pink shirts. Later, one of the boys took Melissa aside and told her about a close relative who was suffering from cancer and had just been told that there was nothing else doctors could do. Money was an issue and the boy asked us for help.

 It doesn’t get any more real than that.

We talk a lot about corporate social responsibility and all the studies that show that given the choice, people would rather do business with an organization that supports causes they like. Many companies adopt a cause and make it a corporate mission and that works for them. But I’ve found that the best results come when the executive in charge of the project genuinely has a passion for the cause. That passion usually becomes contagious. Everybody buys into it and that results in more enthusiasm and better support. And from my vantage, it becomes a lot more fun to work on these projects.

October 28, 2010 at 11:10 pm

Fire in Flanders

Got to play PIO this morning after spending the night playing rehabilition officer at a pretty significant brush fire here in Flanders:  Fortunately, the news media now sleeps at night.  Had this been going on during the day, it would have been tough to juggle both assignments.

I’ve been trying to find other firefighter/public safety types to find out  how they juggle PIO job with their response. Your thoughts?

April 24, 2010 at 6:20 pm

Working Fire in Flanders

I serve as the public information office for Flanders Fire/Rescue. We had a working fire this morning, and here’s the release we issued.

October 18, 2009 at 10:27 am



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