Mutual Aid for Your Public Information Officer


CarolinaFireJournal - By Bill Suthard
By Bill Suthard
01/12/2016 -

Mutual Aid can be defined, simply, as reciprocal aid and cooperation among organizations and agencies. In the world of Public Safety, mutual aid agreements are absolutely vital. The same can be said with the Public Information Officer (PIO) relationship. Do YOU provide “Mutual Aid” to your fellow PIO professionals?

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In my summer article, I discussed the importance of your agency’s Public Information Officer partnering with your community to “Engage and Inform.” Also we discussed the need to branch out, into the community and seek to participate in community events and opportunities. This promotes your department, tells your agency’s “story” and strengthens the community around you. As I mentioned in the summer, our town’s motto is #OneTownOneTeam. While this motto reflects the collective partnership of the town departments working together, it also reflects our connection within the community when we participate and share these events. Our hashtag #OneTownOneTeam is recognized, shared and used frequently now within our community and we’re very proud of that. Our messaging and approach is spreading — perhaps it can become contagious!

The very same approach/motto can work with an adjoining community’s agency. We experienced this first hand recently when our fire department responded to an accident on the interstate. The accident involved a jack knifed tractor trailer that was blocking the entire interstate and one of our engine companies became stuck on scene (in traffic) just south of the accident. Fortunately we had a mutual aid company responding from the town just north of us. Cornelius-Lemley Fire Rescue was able to access our scene from the North — driving the wrong way on the closed interstate. Law enforcement and the hired wrecker service estimated the removal of the truck to be around three to four hours. With our engine company stuck on the south side of the scene and hundreds of cars blocking it in; we were in a predicament! It was decided to leave our engine company, and driver/operator, on scene while Cornelius drove our remaining three crew members back to our Station 1 to grab a reserve fire truck and return to service. Cornelius, knowing that we use the hashtag #OneTownOneTeam quite a bit, sent a picture of our crew inside their fire truck with the hashtag #TwoTownsOneTeam. That same photo found its way onto social media and eventually became part of a viral post, with over 1,943 shares and 282,321 views.

Strategic Relationships/Partnerships

The example listed above was an example of Operational Mutual Aid blending nicely with Media Relations Mutual Aid and it got me thinking. Our strategic partnership/relationship obviously played a key part in this, how many other agencies and organizations do the same? How can an agency not do the same?

Establishing relationships in advance with fellow public safety agencies is very important. The majority of our public safety agencies already have these relationships established; however, these relationships should carry well beyond the daily operations aspect. The relationships should include the Public Information Officer. He or she should communicate daily with fellow PIO’s and should be well aware of what the counterpart’s priorities and what the initiatives are. They should support them and assist them in promoting those initiatives. This can be as easy as sharing a social media post or as advanced as partnering with them and working alongside them. I commonly refer to this as PIO cross-pollination. This goes far beyond the fire service and should include our law enforcement partners, our parks and recreation partners, as well as our positive community organization partners — American Red Cross, Community Blood Center, Salvation Army, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts — to name a few.

As important as the organizational partners I mentioned above, the PIO should also openly communicate, support, engage and actively participate with certain businesses, corporations and services that impact the surrounding community that he or she represents. Understanding that PIO cross-pollination with these partners will also help you to educate, engage and inform your public. For that — your residents/customers — will appreciate you and continue to visit your information venues such as social media, news releases, and websites for more information. The theory is that these organizational partners will do the same as you and share your informational releases and posts; which in turn help increase your span of exposure to your community.

The Metrolina Communications Alliance

An effective tool to support this mutual aid is to identify and form an organized group of public information stakeholders — public information officers, media relations experts, chief officers, community engagement coordinators — and hold regular meetings to coordinate and share information. In the Charlotte Mecklenburg Region we have such a group. It’s called the Metrolina Communications Alliance. The alliance meets every couple of months and has a very diverse make up of public and private sector membership. The alliance meets to review, share information, critique recent incidents and even train. Occasionally command staff for certain agencies will attend as guest speakers. Through candid, frank discussions alliance members discuss and share policies, tips and tricks of the trade. During the December meeting, Charlotte Fire shared a 32-page paper on how to use Social Media. The paper was produced by the Arlington Police Department, world renowned for their use of social media, and was very informative. Throughout the year, the alliance will plan training opportunities for members. Many of these opportunities are FEMA/DHS sponsored and Public Information Officer oriented. For example, for 2016 the alliance has JIS/JIC Course (Joint Information Systems/Joint Information Center) and the Basic Public Information Officer courses planned. The alliance is also working together with the PRSA of Charlotte (Public Relations Society of America) to schedule and study for the APR (Accreditation of Public Relations) exam. 

Crisis Assistance

Equally important, as learning alongside each other, is the exposure and experience the members of the alliance receive working together. This allows the team to be prepared if and when a crisis occurs. The alliance serves as a manpower pool or mutual aid that can respond to support the agency handling the crisis. Here in the Metrolina Communications Alliance we have pre-determined teams — an A, B, and C team — made up of members of the alliance that can deploy in a crisis situation and quickly set up and run a Joint Information Center in support of the primary Public Information Officer.

Members of the Metrolina Communications Alliance include: Charlotte Fire Department, City of Charlotte. Huntersville Fire Department, Town of Huntersville, Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department, MEDIC, Town of Davidson, Cornelius Police Department, Town of Cornelius, Charlotte Water Department, Char-Meck Storm Water Services, Charlotte Airport, Mecklenburg County, Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Department, Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System, Town of Matthews, Piedmont Natural Gas, Mint Hill Police Department, NC Department of Transportation, Carolinas Healthcare, American Red Cross, Novant Health, Salvation Army and Duke Energy.

Bill Suthard is the Public Information Officer (PIO) for the Huntersville Fire Department. The Huntersville Fire Department is a three-station fire department covering 62 square miles in northern Mecklenburg County.

Web: http://huntersvillefd.com

Twitter: @huntersville_fd

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HuntersvilleFireDepartment

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Issue 33.4 | Wpring 2019

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