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Fire Service FAQs and Much More
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Tips for Reporters Covering Fire and
Rescue Emergency Events.
By Captain Mica Calfee
and suggestions are welcomed and valued.
The more input from reporters and fire departments, the better the page will be.
Reporting on Fire and Rescue Emergency Events
Most non-fire service people do not have a clue about how firefighters are trained or what the philosophy of the fire service is. An exception to this might be reporters. I have found that most of the hundreds of reporters I have encountered in my career are fairly knowledgeable when it comes to fire departments. Nevertheless, I often still hear or read really weird things in news reports.
How to Cover Emergency Events
The following suggestions are not something that you should be considered set in stone. These are things that will help you in many situations. But every situation is different and what may work one day, may not the next. For best results you really should become familiar with terminology, the rank structure and strategy and tactics of the fire service. These can be found here.
This is not a firefighter's attempt to tell media professionals how to do their jobs. I realize that most reporters quickly learn more about emergency operations than I will ever know about reporting the news. This is just my way of giving you a head start or a place to research something you may not know. I also hope that you will contact me with any questions you may have. The news media has always been good to the fire service.
A quick glossary of fire and rescue terms can be found here.
If you have a tip or experience you would like to share, please email me here. You may also send questions to the same e-mail address.
As a reporter you will be wanting to get that great shot of the flames or the rescue or the suspect being captured, but these things are rare occurrences. You will need to be able to cover the event in a way that makes for a good story. The people on the emergency scene can greatly help you or hinder you in your goals. You want them on your side. The good news is that they want you on their side too.
Things to keep in mind:
1. Make sure that your press credentials are in plain sight.
If you are not in a well marked vehicle or carrying a large video camera with your station's logo on it, have some press credentials hanging around your neck or something that tells us who you are. Most fire and police departments want to cooperate with the press as much as possible. They also realize that you have a job to do. If you are obviously a professional with a reason to be there you stand a good chance of being looked upon as a member of the "team" involved in that event. This might allow you to do almost whatever you want.
It's for your benefit to find Command.
Many fire and police departments have policies that make it clear that they want the information to come from a central point or person. This is to protect individuals (such as victims) as well as the emergency workers. This also increases the chance of you getting the whole or accurate story. Individual emergency workers may only be exposed to a small amount of information. They might think that what they are engaged in is the most important or interesting aspect or operation of the event. Command may know other information that is both more accurate and would be more interesting.
While there is no "law" that says how command should be identified, it is usually easy to find. There is a growing national trend or standard to identify command with a flashing GREEN LIGHT on the roof of the command vehicle. You will most often see this in situations where there are several different agencies or multiple cities. For even large events, where only one fire department is operating, this beacon may be missing. Over the past ten years there have been many examples of multiple jurisdictions or agencies at the same event. Because of this, national standards and procedures are being developed and slowly accepted. But don't be surprised if some parts of the country have never heard of having a green light on command. Even if there is no green light, command will be the vehicle that just looks like they are in charge. If you can’t find it, just ask any firefighter. This is permissible. They should be able to tell you exactly where command is located and what it will look like.
I mentioned above that you want to be considered part of the "team" for that event. You do this by going through command. Every firefighter and other emergency worker on the scene has received their instructions directly or indirectly through command. Command should know where every person is and what they are doing. They may not know that Engine 4 is doing overhaul in apartment 123, but they will know that E-4 is assigned to Sector A and that sector is over apartments 100 - 125. You should be no exception. Command may assist you directly or may put you in contact with a designated media or information officer. They might also send you to a sector officer who will help you with access.
It would be great if there was a media or public information officer (PIO) at every event. But this is not going to happen. The vast majority of scenes will have command acting as PIO. In most cases you might not even perceive this as a problem. It would be nice if there was someone designated to do nothing but talk with the media at every scene. But don't expect it. There seems to be a strange dynamic. The situation is either so small that a PIO is not perceived as needed or it is so large that we can't initially afford the manpower. I believe that in most (especially smaller) departments that command handles the media or THE CHIEF comes to the fire and talks to them. But if you go to command you stand the best chance of being put in touch with the PIO, if there is one.
If command is very busy, get a shot of command while you wait. The scene of the officer in command, making decisions and a plan and assigning companies could be an interesting image.
It has been pointed out to me that reporters and camera crews have slightly different objectives. The reporters will want information while the camera operator will want a great shot. It is possible to give both what they want. Command can help.
Gaining close-in access to the scene.
Every situation is different. There may be times when there is a need to protect someone’s privacy. New federal laws are being interpreted as prohibiting the dissemination of patient medical information. People may not want you walking through the inside of their damaged home and showing it on television. Firefighters also tend to be very protective of each other. There are many reasons why you might not be allowed close access to a fire or other emergency scene, but this is no reason not to ask. I have seen situations where one TV cameraman was allowed to enter, with an escort, the fire building and get a shot of the bed where the fire started, while other camera crews were confined to the street. The reason why this occurred was because the cameraman asked.
Of course you are able to shoot any situation, that is in public view, based upon the guidelines of your station. The new HIPPA law makes a big deal about personal medical information. The actual application and interpretation of this law is still being tested. The Texas Attorney General has issued a statement that this law does not apply in Texas. Many fire departments will probably err on the side of being over protective. Some may carry things to a ridiculous extreme. The law is being interpreted to prevent us from allowing anyone to be identified based upon any information we give out. Does this mean that we can't allow anyone to see who we are doing CPR on? Are the care providers liable if they do? The courts will probably decide this one. Until then be patient with fire departments as they sort this out.
Firefighters probably will not want you walking through someone's home without permission. But if you can shoot the inside, from the outside safely, who's going to stop you? The point is, ask and you might get even closer.
But what if you can't ask command? If you see an officer (usually a red or white helmet) who appears to not be doing anything, ask him or her. They might know a place you can shoot and they can clear it with command, if need be, in one sentence. You might have permission and an escort rolled into one. This has happened to me many times.
I am sure that I do not have to tell you to not interrupt the command officers when they are being bombarded by radio calls. But if you ask at the right moment, with the right amount care and compassion for how busy command might be, you could get a great story or at least some better video than your competitors.
One note about police officers. Police sometimes view everything as a "crime scene" that needs to remain free of all contamination. This includes fire scenes. If a police officer absolutely will not allow you within a block of the scene, ask if this is something the fire department has requested. If that question can't be answered, politely have the police officer ask his dispatch to ask fire dispatch if it is OK for media to come in. This will only take a few seconds to get you an answer. If the fire department does not want you in there, consider this a hint that there is a story about a serious danger about to break. Stay patient and alert. You might get a scoop by waiting a few minutes.
Keep in mind that the more agencies that are involved the more difficult gaining access may become. For example: If there is a mail box involved the postal service gets very protective. If there is an aircraft involved then the FAA and the NTSB get real protective of the scene. Trust me on this, most fire departments do not have a problem with the media at all. If you being denied any access, it's probably extremely dangerous or the Feds are involved. It might also really be a crime scene. I am confident that I don't have to tell you the importance on not going into a crime scene.
Be careful and considerate regarding injured or killed emergency workers.
As mentioned before, emergency workers tend to be very protective of each other. We also will shield the loved ones of a fallen comrade. This is not to say that you can’t gain access. Just be prepared to encounter and deal with a protective shield. If a firefighter does something great, command might be inclined to tell you to go ahead and do an interview. But if there is something that causes grief you can expect fellow firefighters or command to first consider protecting the individual.
Rather than say: "Can we get the names of the firefighters who survived the roof collapse?" say, "That was incredible! I know that they are probably shook up, but when it is possible, we would like to hear their story." This may or may not work but it might be worth a try. Most chiefs delight in letting their firefighters have a little of the spotlight. If they are assured that you are not going to just use or embarrass their firefighters, they will trust you with their stories.
I know that this sounds as though that I am suggesting that reporters are not kind and compassionate people. Nothing could be farther from the truth. But in reality, sometimes the excitement of the story, or the competition to get it, causes reporters to come across as uncaring. I have almost never experienced this, but I know that it does happen.
Firefighters understand how appearances can be deceiving. Firefighters are heartbroken to see a dozen families lose their belongings in an apartment fire, and yet you will see them smiling and “high-fiveing” each other afterwards. This may be because of several things. It might be because they have just survived a dangerous couple of hours without injury. It could also be the fact that there were twenty units in that building and another twenty in nearby buildings that without their efforts, would have been lost as well. We are also happy when no citizens are harmed or killed in a major fire. It may look like we are rejoicing in others loss, but that is not the case. We know that reporters are not people who are excited about a family losing all they own, even if you seem excited about the story. If you will show that you are “one of us” in this regard, your chances of the officer in charge actively helping you with your story will go up.
Please take the time to get the facts correct.
The chances of this can be improved by ALWAYS going through command. We want to help you to be accurate. I can go to just about every news story I have ever been involved in and point out the errors. Often the mistakes are statistical in nature. At other times one has to wonder where this information came from. I have been interviewed only to later read about "facts" that just didn't happen. We want you to be accurate. We don’t mind you asking again for clarification. Firefighters and police officers tend to speak in a language only others in their profession understand. Do us a favor and ask us to explain anything you don’t understand.
But we can often misspeak too. Once I commented, in a phone interview, on the number of "houses" damaged by a tornado. The next day I read where the fire department reports that several "hoses" were damaged by the storm. Had I used the word "homes" the story would have been both more accurate and more interesting. The reporter could have asked for clarification as well to have avoided the mistake. I have also referred to a city, assisting on a fire, by the wrong name. Of course the reporter might not know the difference, but in this case she picked up on the conflicting information and allowed me to correct my mistake.
Be careful who you interview. The firefighter on the scene rarely has the whole story. What he or she thinks is the big objective may have nothing to do with what is going on somewhere else. The larger the event the more likely that very few people know everything that's going on.
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