Conveying Tragedy

I consider myself a student of effective public and media relations. One of the most difficult messages a fire chief or public information officer must convey is that of a tragedy where, despite our best efforts, the results are fatal.

I often coach fire officers and public officials at incident scenes as how to best deliver difficult news. While I encourage them to focus on the role of the rescuers – not the victims, showing respect and concern for all those affected by the tragedy is very important as we speak publicly. This uncomfortable situation is one that any of us could be faced with at any time.

Such was the case on the early morning of New Year’s Day in the City of Tonawanda NY. Despite heroic efforts to reach her, a young female died in this residential structure fire. I know firsthand how these events can have a profound impact on you and your outlook on life.

As I do most information, I viewed this news story through three different sets of eyes. As a citizen, I was deeply affected by the loss of life in our community, especially by fire, and felt badly for those whose lives were changed by it.

As a firefighter, I felt empathy for my brothers who struggled to make a rescue but were unsuccessful, and the pain they endure as being a part of this tragic scene. I think that viewpoint is often overlooked, especially in the media.

As a fire service leader, I objectively examined the way the fire department handled the emergency and how the outcomes were communicated. Frankly, I think Tonawanda Fire Chief Chuck Stuart gave an honest interview and did an excellent job of conveying the facts while showing respect for the victim’s family. Watch the video and let me know what you think.

I struggle to write about these things while emotions are running high. In doing so, my intent is not to be disrespectful or insensitive to those involved, but simply to share my observations and take advantage of a possible teaching moment for anyone else who might find themselves in a similar situation, in front of the camera in the heat of the moment, the next time the siren sounds.

As always, our thoughts and prayers are with everyone who was touched by this death, including the undoubtedly frustrated firefighters who responded to their call for help.