As written previously, I have served on quite a few Incident Management Teams (IMT) as a Public Information Officer (PIO) over the last few years. Unfortunately, I have served in the capacity of a PIO for a public safety line of duty death far more than I ever anticipated. While I am proud and appreciative, that various agencies from across the state know of me and ask for my assistance when presented with a very sad, tragic, dynamic and historical event, I often wonder, if one day my requests for my services would ever slow down.
Yet, no matter what happens, I will always respond at a moment’s notice and find a way to support our fallen first responder heroes and the family they left behind.
You see, I believe there is no greater honor in this world then to serve a fallen hero as their chief spokesperson. When deployed, following a tragic loss, my goal is to represent the fallen hero — who can no longer speak for themselves again. My goal is to embrace and serve the family of the fallen while supporting the agency that is mourning and in grief. I protect them, speak for them and make sure their loved one is never forgotten. I’ve built irreversible bonds with the families and agencies that I have served over the years. To this day we cry together, we laugh together and we support each other. They are and forever will be my extended family.
Atlantic Beach Fire Department
This year has not been a slow year for us. We planned, staffed and worked the NBA Allstar week here in Charlotte, shortly followed by the CIAA tournament in town. Following those few, chaotic weeks, I was identified as the Communications Unit Leader (COML) for the 2020 Republican National Convention to be held here in Charlotte in August of 2020 (oh boy).
While all the pre-meeting, planning and brainstorming commenced, I was contacted on March 11th by our Charlotte-Mecklenburg Emergency Management Chief and asked to immediately respond to Virginia, Charlottesville specifically, to support the family of an active North Carolina Fire Chief, Chief Adam Snyder of the Atlantic Beach Fire Department, who was catastrophically injured while on a vacation/skiing trip with his son. The reports we were receiving were grave and they requested a PIO to the hospital as soon as possible. I remember the request clearly.
I was sitting in my office, at my desk in Uptown Charlotte eating lunch. Our chief called and said “you’ve been requested by the State Of North Carolina to respond to Virginia.” I asked when and he said now. I threw my lunch in the trash, jumped into my CFD vehicle and headed to my house to pack. Along the way I called my wife and broke the news to her. As she’s done over the years, she was awaiting my arrival and helped me pack for my trip (for the record, we didn’t do so good with this hurried packing I forgot socks, underwear and deodorant). Essentially; I failed miserably, but ultimately recovered over the next few days.
The drive took me just over four hours — thanks to rush hour — and I arrived just after 10 p.m. Along the way, I quietly drove, planned my approach, my priorities and my goals. As I’ve mentioned previously, right here in this periodical, the priorities are ALWAYS to place family first – specifically the fallen’s family. Quickly followed by the fallen and then the agency and community that he/she served. Along the way I communicated with Carteret County and I used a dictation APP to help me write a media release announcing the loss of the chief.
I arrived at the hospital just before 10 p.m. and met with family at a local restaurant. I was quickly updated and realized that we lost the chief as the result of his accident, which occurred in front of his son. I finalized the OFFICIAL media release for the loss and scrambled to neutralize anything that went out prematurely and without family consent — which pretty much kept me busy overnight. I found a hotel in town, got some rest, woke up early and started assisting with the planning Chief Snyder’s return to the North Carolina coast. We rose early, wrapped up the final planning for the procession and responded to numerous media requests and questions both in Virginia, North Carolina – as well as national media.
A Week in Atlantic Beach
As we departed Charlottesville, headed towards the Carolina coast, we were showered with love from other public safety agencies. More than 90 percent of all overpasses that we drove under in Virginia and North Carolina had a first responder, vehicle and even flags set up in honor of Chief Snyder. As we got closer to the coast, roads were lined with people, holding handmade signs in honor of Chief Snyder. Once I arrived in Atlantic Beach I received additional orders from NCEM to remain on site through Sunday (another six days) to assist with media relations and the funeral (this is the same time I realized that I needed to purchase socks and underwear). For the remainder of the week, I worked alongside the family liaison and supported the town, county, fire department and family with funeral planning and media support. We worked all week trying to do all the heavy lifting, planning and coordinating for the family and agency. More details on our focus points are located at the end of this article.
The Mooresville Police Department
Late on the night of May 4, 2019 I received a phone call at home reporting that a Mooresville Police Officer was shot and killed in the line of duty during a traffic stop. His death was not publicly known yet. I was immediately requested to respond to the town to support them. Living in Huntersville, Mooresville is just up the road, so I quickly dressed and headed north in a driving rain. On arrival, I met with police, fire and 911 communication leadership. As would be expected, they were still in shock from the evening’s events. However, one thing they knew for certain – they wanted an Incident Management Team assigned to this incident. A day or so later, I was contacted by Mooresville and asked to deploy to their town to support their town PIO. The remainder of the week I supported their team as a PIO. On the day of the funeral, I relieved the town PIO so that she could attend the service. I worked all morning with the media that had assembled as well to make sure the fallen officer, Jordan Sheldon, his family and his agency was represented well.
PIO Focus Points and Rules Following an LODD
- The most important customer you are serving in this assignment, as an IMT PIO is the fallen hero, the immediate 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 the agency, protect them at all costs.
- 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 as well.
- 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 and should be your closest partner/confidant.
- Ask for PIO help. Establish a joint information center (JIC), establish PIO job assignments.
- Media relations, social media, writing, rumor control etc.
- 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? Write a call taking template, if needed. Keep information sharing consistent.
- Assist the family with official statements, work through the fam –
Provide the family with an idea of what they can expect, what the media and the community are saying.
- If they want to respond, help them formulate a statement, give them tips, help them present their message.
- Media is a customer of yours as well; they are the pipeline to the community. Fill the pipeline with positive information about the fallen.
- Your community is concerned, they want to help the agency and the fallen’s family. Tell them how they can help.
- 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 and family stories 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. You are their Subject Matter Expert (SME).
- Set specific guidelines and rules for media at the memorial service; but avoid limiting their access, if possible. They have a right to tell the story.
- Maintain the dignity, ceremony and privacy of the survivors.
The Brotherhood Ride
I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss the Carolina Brotherhood in this article. I am honored to be a member and the PIO for this amazing team of public servants. Started in 2012 following the death of Captain Jeff Bowen of the Asheville Fire Department, our group honors the Carolina fallen every summer. When I say Carolina, I mean both North Carolina and South Carolina.
In the heat of every summer (we’re on our eighth year) we ride bicycles across both states in honor of those selfless servants that have laid down their lives in the line of duty. True Selfless Servants. We average just over 600 miles on bicycles over five days each year. As I write this article, we are only six days out from the 2019 ride. We aren’t professional cyclists either; but we have heart, we have desire and we have passion.
We NEVER want our fallen to see us fail; because you KNOW they’re watching us from above. Every member of the ride is a firefighter, a medic or a law enforcement member. We come together each year to honor the fallen and remember those left behind. We are a close family. It’s painful, both physically and emotionally, every year. We choose the summer on purpose because we want it to hurt; much like the loss of the heroes that we ride for and we honor.
We make sure to visit with the families of the fallen all week and we learn their lifelong stories. We provide the family of the fallen with emotional and financial support. We pay bills, provide vacations, scholarships, meals and just good ole love and conversation.
This summer we ride for the 2017 fallen. They are 17 Carolina public servant heroes (12 law enforcement, which includes two police K9s, four firefighters and one EMS professional). We’ll begin in Windsor North Carolina, ride south to Wilmington, west into South Carolina, through Lancaster and Greenville. Then we ride back north into North Carolina ending at Burnsville — which is uphill. It’s truly an honor to do this.
You see, once we lose a public servant, a selfless servant, a real super hero; It doesn’t end there, at that incident and at that scene. We owe it to them to remember, to honor and to NEVER FORGET their sacrifice and their service to our communities. We owe it to them to help, support and love on the family they leave behind and I will FOREVER make that happen. The real and true honor of being a Public Safety PIO!
Bill Suthard is a Firefighter/EMT and Public Information Officer (PIO). He works part-time for the Huntersville Fire Department. Suthard works, full-time, for the Charlotte Fire Department where he is currently assigned as the Operations Manager for their Communications Division. He manages the Division’s public information and social media accounts. Suthard is an NCEM (NC-SERT) all-hazards type III PIO/COML and is a member of and the PIO for the annual Carolina Brotherhood Ride (#CBH19). He is also an instructor for the Federal Emergency Communications Division (ECD), a portion of the Department Of Homeland Security.