The fall season can be an absolute whirlwind for me as we wrap up Hurricane season here in the Carolinas. This year was no different, my busiest yet. I was activated early by North Carolina Emergency Management and deployed for 10 days in support of Hurricane Florence.
In the following weeks I stayed busy with Tropical Storm Michael, the DuPont Rescue Experience in Henderson County, graduation from FEMA’s Advanced Public Information Officer Course as well as my attendance in the UNC Charlotte Fire Rescue Management Program — which continues through February 2019. However, my biggest accomplishment by far was my deployment and work with the National Fallen Firefighter Memorial Weekend in Emmitsburg Maryland. My article this month details that weekend, my assignment, my observations and my takeaways as a PIO for a Line of Duty Death.
It all began last Spring (2018) when I received an invitation from Dave Statter, a former DC area reporter, fire service blogger and the current communications consultant for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. Dave asked if I would work the Fall 2018 Memorial Weekend event as a Public Information Officer (PIO). Coincidentally, I grew up in the Maryland/DC area and watched Dave on the local news (WUSA-TV). He, along with local PIO Mark Brady of the Prince George’s County Fire and EMS Department, sparked my interest in not only the fire service, but also service as a PIO. That career path always interested and intrigued me after watching them nightly on the local news. There always seemed to be a lot of daily fires in the MD, DC and VA metro area – so I saw them on TV quite a bit. Fast forwarding to 2018 and I was absolutely privileged, and excited, to receive this invitation.
My first exposure and work with the fallen began in late spring of 2016. I was assigned as the PIO for a firefighter line of duty death in Pineville, North Carolina. Following that LODD (Line Of Duty Death), I worked an additional two firefighter LODDs in just a few short months. The year 2016 was very tough on the greater Charlotte area. During those assignments, some as primary and others as secondary and tertiary, I learned quite a bit about being an LODD-PIO during that brief, chaotic period. I learned, quickly, who my audience(s) were and more importantly, who my customer(s) were. A PIO assigned to cover a fallen hero can be the most rewarding, yet challenging part of someone’s career. Even though I’ve been a member of the PIO for the annual Carolina Brotherhood Ride (https://www.facebook.com/CarolinaBhood/), I cannot explain how much I learned as a PIO in those short few months.
In the fall of 2017, I had the opportunity to travel with the Pineville FD to Maryland to honor our 2016 Fallen. We attended all the events associated with the National Fallen Firefighter Memorial Weekend. The entire weekend was an amazing experience. I knew right then and there that was something I wanted to be involved with further. Little did I know that I would get my chance the following year.
2018 Memorial Weekend
As mentioned previously, I was invited to work the 2018 weekend as a PIO for the event. I drove up from Charlotte and FEMA housed me on the campus of the National Fire Academy. They provided me with daily meals and support. I was assigned to the event communications team (as a PIO working Media) and took up my assignment within the incident command post. Command included various chiefs, company officers and experts from the fire service and throughout the country. It was truly an honor to be part of this team.
I was immediately briefed on my responsibilities. We were broken up into teams of speech writers, social media (photographers and writers) as well as announcers and talent. I was able to work with experienced fire service social media experts, tenured experienced reporters (radio and TV) and true wordsmiths. My primary responsibility was to work with local and national media that were covering the weekend. I immediately identified, as I had previously during my LODD assignments, my audiences and my customers and prioritized as such. As you can imagine, my audience was easy to identify: the media covering the event and the common public interested and watching the weekends’ events. My customers were the families of the fallen (the survivors) and the agencies in which they served. As always, I prioritized my customers over my audience.
I immediately found that the communications team I was assigned to be a part of were true consummate professionals. Some had vastly more experience with this event than me but were eager to bring me up to speed. They immediately helped me get settled and find my way into the team. I quickly learned that the families of the fallen were at the very top of everyone’s priority list. Families of the fallen were brought in from all across the country. They were greeted at local MD/DC/VA airports as true VIPs and escorted to their hotel. Once arriving at the venue hotel, there was nothing they could wish for. Meals, entertainment, counseling and family activities (all in support of their fallen loved one) were carefully planned in advance and orchestrated throughout the weekend. Each family was issued personal escorts who helped them navigate the weekend. On Thursday, as the families began to arrive in Maryland, the Presidential wreath was laid at the tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. That evening, returning families — families who have lost a loved one in previous years and are returning to support the families of the current fallen — gather for a very special dinner together. On Friday, the final families arrive – as do members of the fire service in town to support the event and the families. Survivors continue to participate in family-oriented events, registration, orientation and a very special dinner. Saturday is the official “Family Day” and the fun, family activities continue. Sessions focus on coping, counseling and financial wellness and then culminates with a candle light vigil that evening at the actual memorial site.
Sunday is THE day, the day we name, honor and remember the fallen of 2017. It’s also the day the official bronze memorial marker is added. As people visit the memorial, some place coins next to the names to honor the fallen. The coins are symbolic; a penny means you visited the memorial and you knew them, a nickel signifies you were in training with them at the fire academy, a dime means you served alongside them and a sacred quarter means that you were with them on that faithful day when they lost their life in the line of duty.
On Sunday, Memorial Day, thousands turn out to remember and honor the fallen. The fallen are identified by state and each family, along with their escorts are called up one by one to take the stage where they are issued an American flag — flown over the U.S. Capital — a rose and a badge in honor of their loved one. It is a very professional, humble, hallowed ceremony.
Working an LODD as a PIO/PAO
Working the Memorial weekend allowed me opportunities to learn, first hand, from external affairs experts who have experience with line of duty death assignments. I learned that I was somewhat on target with my initial focus and general responsibilities. Time with those experts allowed me to add to my list of responsibilities and I created a task listing that I saved in my secure file sharing software (and also my PIO go-kit) for ease of access should the time arise — and it has already with a recent SC LODD following my return from Maryland. In closing, I will share some of those with you below.
- In my opinion, the most important customer you are serving in this assignment is the family and the agency associated with the loss.
- Ensure ALL media advisories, releases and information shared regarding the LODD incident is accurate. All factual based. Avoid the unknown, until known.
- Be sensitive to the family and agency, protect them.
- They should be the first to see what you’re releasing, make sure they approve.
- The incident commander (IMT / Incident Response Team) must be aware and approve the release.
- Be aware of any family related cultural norms; ensure your information release is in accordance to their traditions and their beliefs.
- Get to know the family liaison immediately; they are your pipeline to the family.
- Ask for PIO help. Establish a joint information center (JIC), establish PIO job assignments.
- Media relations, social media, writing, rumor control.
- Get a handle on phone calls to the agency involved. Where are calls going? Who is answering? How are questions, rumors or requests to assist answered?
- Assist the family with official statements, work through the family liaison.
- Provide the family with an idea of what they can expect, what media and the community are saying.
- If they want to respond, help them formulate a statement, give them tips, help them present their message.
Responsibilities – Media
- Media is a customer of yours as well; they are the pipeline to the community.
- Your community is concerned, they want to help the agency and the fallen’s family.
- Provide and coordinate media access to the agency’s address and the incident location.
- Scout out a good location for them where they can capture imaging; but also, not get in the way of the investigation and grieving.
- Anticipate and provide the media with photos, biographies related to the incident.
- Partner with the media to get secondary messaging out related to the loss.
- Road closures, assisting agencies (station coverage) funeral and memorial services.
- Be prepared to accompany the agency leadership and the family of the fallen to all media obligations, interviews and contacts.
- Set specific guidelines and rules for media at the memorial service; without limiting their access.
- Maintain the dignity, ceremony and privacy of the survivors.
I’m looking forward the 2019 Memorial Weekend (Oct. 3-6, 2019); I know what to expect and I know that I’ll be ready to serve the families of the fallen. I will never forget that the families, the agencies and the survivors are my primary customers.
Bill Suthard is a Firefighter/EMT and Public Information Officer (PIO). Suthard works part-time for the Huntersville Fire Department. The Huntersville Fire Department is a busy, four-station, combination fire department covering 62 square miles in northern Mecklenburg County. The department, just north of Charlotte, includes two lakes (Lake Norman and Mountain Island Lake) and serves a population of just over 60,000 residents. The department has over 100 part-time employees and approximately 28 volunteer firefighters. Suthard also works, full-time, for the Charlotte Fire Department where he is currently assigned as the Operations Manager for their Communications Division. He directly manages the five Shift Supervisors and 33 other members of the Division. He also manages the Division’s public information and social media accounts and is also a member of and the PIO for the annual Carolina Brotherhood Ride. #CBH18