After a Serious Fire: Maximizing Media Attention to Promote Safety

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Educating the public about the serious - and largely preventable - scourge of fire in our communities is easy to support, but not necessarily easy to do. Many of you may already be comfortable promoting fire safety with reporters, while others may be reticent to work with the media or unclear about the right way comment after a fire. What is the best way for you - the fire chiefs of this nation - to reach your community with fire safety messages? The following advice from public affairs professionals in FEMA and the U.S. Fire Administration will help you in reaching out to the media as a partner in fire education.

A Fatal Fire Occurs in Your Jurisdiction

A fire, particularly a large or fatal fire, is automatically news. It meets such journalistic values as immediacy, impact, emotion and proximity. When broadcast media, which requires visuals to tell a story, get videotape of a raging fire or working firefighters, you can bet that story will be on the air. While the onsite coverage is not an opportune time to talk about the larger story behind the tragedy, it is a good time to lay the groundwork for a follow-up story, also called a second-day story. Here are some suggestions:

A Fatal Fire Occurs in a Near-by Jurisdiction

Many of the strategies outlined above can also be used by departments that are located near, but in a different media market, than that of the fatal fire. You can point to the fire in the next city, county, etc., and tailor your message in a "we must make sure this tragedy is avoided here" tone. The "news hook" created by that fatal fire can be enough to get your local media interested in fire prevention. Remember, this must be done quickly, within a day or two of the original event. If contact is made later than that, you have lost the "news hook" and your prevention message is a harder sell.

Since your local media will not have video of the original fire, it's imperative that you offer visuals. Invite local broadcasters to your fire station. Give them an opportunity to shoot "B-roll," essentially visuals, of your firefighters preparing equipment, participating in training or providing community education. Details of your outreach or community education programs should be ready for the reporter, both print and broadcast, as well as statistics that outline the fire situation in your community. Remember, no matter what the statistics show, they are useful to the reporter. An increase in fires intensifies the importance of your safety/prevention messages, while a decrease underscores the importance of your previous community outreach.

A Fire Occurs Where Smoke Alarms or Planning Prevents a Tragedy

Watch for fires where tragedy is avoided - individuals are alerted to the fire by a smoke alarm or escape with pre-planning. In these cases, the fire may have destroyed property, but no lives were lost - giving you an opportunity to underscore the positive. Yes, sometimes it seems that the media doesn't care about positive stories. In such a situation, however, the emotion of a family or person saved is likely to be a sufficient "news hook." It's most powerful if you are able to work with the fire victims when arranging to talk to the media, but this is not necessary. Your department has all the visuals and professionals needed to make a powerful statement about the importance of prevention/safety. Be sure to emphasize any efforts you've made in educating/preparing the community, and consider building on the fire event to reach out to civic groups that may be prompted by the events to partner with you. Remember, this must be done quickly - within days of the fire. After a week, the media's attention has turned elsewhere and you've lost the momentum.

Anniversaries of Large or Fatal Fires

Annual anniversaries can serve as a good "news hook" to spur the media to revisit a previous fire. An anniversary of a fatal fire gives you a second chance to spread a prevention message tailored to the specifics of the event. In this case, make sure you give the media at least a week's notice that the anniversary is approaching. Again, try to arrange visuals. You can offer a trip to the station, to a training event or back to the site of the original fire. Provide a variety of speakers to be interviewed, too. Use your imagination! If you've made changes in your outreach or have had a significant change in statistics since the original event, be sure to share those. This approach to anniversaries works best on the one-year anniversary, but could also be successful at a five-year anniversary if the original event was very significant. Typically, a two-, three- or four-year anniversary doesn't work well as a "news hook."

Other tips:

As fire professionals, we take each fatal fire personally. It seems as if we have failed our community in some way. A fatal fire, though, might be just the wake-up call your community needs. It could serve as a catalyst for a new or reinvigorated commitment to fire safety and prevention. You are key to this. You can help turn the tragedy of fire deaths to a triumph of a safer community.