Selecting and Training a Public Information Officer

In November, I was fortunate to be invited to join some well-known PIO instructors at Wake Forest University for a Public Information Officer (PIO) Basic Course hosted by the college and Forsyth County Emergency Management. While I attended the class and answered students’ questions, it made me think back to my PIO training over the years and the numerous opportunities for me to improve my PIO skill sets through the many professional development courses offered, many through FEMA. I decided right then and there; what my winter PIO column would be about — so here we are.

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If you’ve read my previous articles, you’ve probably picked up on how important I think the position of Public Information Officer really is. It’s a position that every agency should have assigned within their organization. Whether you’re a small volunteer, community department or a larger paid, municipal department. You need someone representing the agency with your customers. Yes, as also mentioned in my previous articles – we have “customers” here in the public safety world. A PIO is the link to your community, the protector of your brand and the teller of your stories. But not just ANYONE can be your PIO. So how do you select the right person and then how do you train them to be a PIO? As mentioned in the previous paragraph, there’s excellent training out there through FEMA and your local Emergency Management (EM) organizations — all of which I am going to share with you.

Selecting Your PIO

A recent trend, among public safety agencies and specifically within larger agencies, is to select a local, trusted journalist to move over to the public safety world as the PIO. This has worked very well in a multitude of markets; with the journalists bringing over their vast media experience, brand protection knowledge and ever more important contacts. As with everything, there are also some examples of this not working out as planned. I’ve known of a few that have crashed and burned, mainly because they could not grasp the unique world of public safety operations. This should not influence you either way, the choice is yours to determine. Neither is a wrong or a right move; the ultimate decision should be made on a case by case basis. This is where a formal selection and vetting process along with a very specific job description and understanding of what is expected from your PIO.

My opinion; given my experience over the years is to select a trusted member of your agency and send them through a PIO training program. The person you select should have the following attributes:

  • A tenured member who is calm, patient, mature and action oriented, and someone you can trust with your agency brand.
  • A member possessing positive experience with social media (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc.).
  • A member willing to attend and complete the various FEMA, accredited PIO and IMT training courses, which I will list within this article.
  • A member willing to complement and work with surrounding agencies, town/city/county government agencies and the residents of your community. A member who can build interagency relationships.

All-Hazards PIO

There are quite a few training courses out there available for public safety personnel. I’ve attended all of them, and they are well worth attending, not to mention they can help you become credentialed as an All-Hazards Public Information Officer, which was a goal for me. An All-Hazard Public Information Officer is a PIO specifically assigned to an All-Hazard Incident Management Team (AHIMT). An AHIMT plays an essential role in the management of, and response to, local/regional/national emergencies, natural disasters and planned public events. According to the U.S. Fire Administrations an AHIMT can enhance ongoing operations “through provision of infrastructure support, or when requested, transition to an incident management function.” These enhances include all components/functions including the following: command and general staff members as well as support personnel, statutory authority and/or formal response requirements and responsibilities, pre-designated roles — with PIO being one of them — and responsibilities for members of the AHIMT (who can be deployed), as well as the ability to operate across multiple operational periods 24 hours a day, seven days a week until the incident is closed out.

To become an All-Hazards PIO, you will need to complete the ALL-Hazards courses and complete a Position Task Book (PTB). More information on the AHPIO course (FEMA E/L-952) can be found here: https://www.firstrespondertraining.gov/frts/npccatalog?catalog=EMI.

ICS and NIMS Training

Starting down the path towards PIO training, you will need to start with your basic ICS and NIMS training. ICS is the Incident Command System and NIMS is the National Incident Management System and many of those reading this article most likely already have your basic ICS training certificates. If not, probably time to start attending. These basic NIMS courses are prerequisites for future courses and credentialing and many public safety agencies require them for promotion as well.

The core ICS/NIMS courses you will need include:

  • ICS100 – Introduction to the Incident Command System (online course)
  • ICS200 – ICS for Single Resources and Initial Action Incidents (online course)
  • ICS300 – Intermediate ICS for Expanding Incidents (in-person course)
  • ICS400 – Advance ICS for Command and General Staff (in-person course)

Additional ICS/NIMS courses that are recommended include:

  • IS700 – National Incident Management System Introduction (online course)
  • IS701 – NIMS Multiagency Coordination System (online course)
  • IS702 – NIMS Public Information System (online course)
  • IS703 – NIMS Resource Management System (online course)
  • IS800 – National Response Framework Introduction (online course)

Additional Social Media/PIO courses that I personally recommend include:

  • PER304 – Social Media for Disaster Response and Recovery, provided by *NDPTC (eight-hour in person course)
  • PER343 – Social Media Engagement Strategies, provided by *NDPTC (eight-hour in person course)
  • PER344 – Social Media Tools and Techniques, provided by *NDPTC (eight-hour in person course)
  • Digital Imagery and Social Media Challenges in the Fire Service course, taught by Chief Kurt Varone: https://www.firelawblog.com/courses/  
               

*Note the courses I listed that are provided by the NDPTC (National Disaster Preparedness Training Center) are located throughout the country annually, here’s a link to their site: https://ndptc.hawaii.edu/training/.

Specific Public Information Officer Training

As mentioned earlier in my article, there are some very good PIO courses you can take. They are all in person courses and can be found at various locations around the Carolinas each year. Once you nail down your basic ICS/NIMS certifications, I suggest you begin searching out these classes, sign up and dive in. You will learn the basic PIO skill sets and core competencies to be a successful and effective Public Information Officer. These courses are Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) courses and are available through their National Training and Education Division and their Emergency Management Institute (EMI). I will list these classes below. When considering your attendance; pay close attention to the course prerequisites.

Public Information Officer EMI Courses:

  • G0290 – Basic Public Information Officer Course (14-hour local in-person course)
  • G0291 – Joint Information System/Center Planning for PIO’s Course (7-hour local in-person course)
  • E0952 – All-Hazards Public Information Officer Course (35-hour local in-person course)
  • E0388 – Advanced Public Information Officer Course (38-hour local or EMI resident course)
  • E0388 – Master Public Information Officer Course (96-hour EMI resident course)

More information regarding the above courses can be found at the following EMI site: https://www.firstrespondertraining.gov/frts/npccatalog?catalog=EMI and by searching PIO in the search bar at the top. You will be able to peruse the course description as well as any prerequisites required in order to attend.

To find local course opportunities around the Carolinas (ICS 300, 400, Basic PIO, JIS/JIC, Advanced PIO) I recommend using NC Terms for North Carolina (https://terms.ncem.org/TRS/). Hopefully you already have an NC Terms account, if not I recommend you sign up for one. It’s free and offers a portal to view and register for upcoming classes. It will also be a repository for your course transcripts and certifications. For South Carolina, I recommend using the SC EMD site located at (https://www.scemdlms.org/TRS/home.do), it also functions much like NC Terms and is a good resource for future course offerings. Both sites have training calendars.

Web: https://huntersvillefd.com

Twitter: @huntersville_fd

Twitter: @BPSuthard

Twitter: @CarolinaBhood

Twitter: @CFD_Alarm

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

Bill Suthard is a firefighter/EMT and Public Information Officer (PIO). He works part-time for the Huntersville Fire Department and full-time for the Charlotte Fire Department where he is currently assigned as the Operations Manager for their Communications Division. Suthard directly manages the five Shift Supervisors and 36 other members of the Division. He manages the Division’s public information, social media accounts. Suthard is also an instructor for the Federal Emergency Communications Division (ECD), a portion of the Department of Homeland Security. Each year, in October, he also serves as the PIO for the National Fallen Firefighter Memorial service in Emmitsburg Maryland which he lists as one of his greatest accomplishments.
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