Fire Fighting in Canada

Comment: September 2016

I tell a story when I talk to groups of fire officers about dealing with media – a story about being the courts-and-cops reporter for the Halifax Chronicle Herald.

I was on the early shift and did the usual round of police checks to find out what news had transpired overnight.

There was, of course, no Twitter or Facebook, texting or email, and no cell phones.

A body had been discovered, I learned from my calls, in a ball park, so I called our photo desk and headed out, trusty notebook in hand, and a pocket full of dimes.

In those days, the Herald had an afternoon edition. After I talked to detectives at the scene, I drove to the pay phone at MicMac Mall to call in the story. Murder, gang violence, pay back – details given to me on background but not for attribution.

There were no other reporters – or anyone other than police officers and the Herald photographer – at the ball park.

The detectives talked to me because I had cultivated their trust. They knew my deadlines and gave me enough information for a story.

Later, in time for noon-hour newscasts, a press release went out.

There was, in 1986, the luxury of time; deadlines came a couple of times a day, and  agencies such as police and fire could reveal only the details they wanted made public.

Not so much in 2016.

In the case of a June 28 explosion in Mississauga, Ont., news outlets had the names of the homeowners and sordid details within hours; myriad photos of the destruction and debris were online instantly; and speculation about the cause was rampant.

Mississauga Fire Chief Tim Beckett’s first call after learning about the incident was to corporate communications. Beckett knew from his media training through the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs to feed the beast – give reporters something to chew on and let them know when their next meal was coming (the time of the next press conference).

Beckett and others successfully managed their messages, declined to engage questions about nefarious activity and, in doing so, diffused chaos and soothed overwhelmed and distraught residents.

Still, as much as social media can cause headaches for first responders, it forces agencies to be transparent and fulsome in their dealings with reporters.

It’s OK to tell reporters the cause of an incident is being investigated, to ask for patience or to respect privacy; usually, media will comply, as long as there’s a nugget to put on the suppertime news or the outlet’s Twitter feed.

The trick is to feed that beast quickly, and often, before hunger pangs set in and it goes looking elsewhere for juicy tidbits. 

August 29, 2016  By Laura King

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