Learning from the United Airlines Debacle

Damaging the public trust in the fire service




Public relations are an important part of the fire service. We need to keep a positive image of our respective departments and encouraging interaction between the public, our political entities and ourselves.

United Airlines learned some very hard lessons in the past couple of weeks; the first was refusing to let some passengers board a flight because of what they were wearing, the other was the violent removal of a passenger because they didn’t get any volunteers to give up their seats sot hey could fly four of their employees from Chicago to Louisville, Yet another incident has just reared its ugly head, a passenger on a flight from Hawaii to Los Angeles was threatened with handcuffs because he was refusing to give up his first class seat for a “higher priority” passenger.

What does this have to do with the fire service? Everything.

Just about everyone and their dog owns a smart phone with photo and video capabilities. The news media encourages their viewers to send them photos and videos of breaking news, fireground operations included! Just as passengers uploaded their cell phone videos about the United Airlines incident, they do the same thing about our incidents.  What happens at a scene can go viral within minutes on You Tube and other social media outlets

I once had one of the firefighters on my fire department approach me the day after a stubborn fire in a hoarder house. I was called in for that fire and was assigned to be the liaison to the media as the Pubic Information Officer (PIO).  He had a copy of the local newspaper in hand and pointed out a picture of the scene that was taken by a bystander with his cell phone and a quote from an “unnamed firefighter at the scene” that was recorded by the reporter for the newspaper. The picture and the quote made him angry. He made the statement that “the first thing we should do is set up a perimeter to keep people away from and stop them from taking pictures of us doing stupid stuff.”

My answer to him was “Well, if we didn’t do stupid stuff, we wouldn’t have a problem, would we?”

It is imperative that fire departments have someone assigned to be the Public Information Officer (PIO). This person should be articulate and knowledgeable about working with the media. Fire personnel, when approached by news reporter and camera crew should refer all media questions to the PIO and let that person do their job, relay the facts and keep the FD in a positive light.

History proves that we as firefighters tend to shoot ourselves in the foot far too often; we find out that it hurts and the end result is bad PR that causes us to lose the public trust.

United Airlines learned that lesson the hard way, with negative press and a significant drop in their stock market value. Don’t let that happen to your department.


Photo courtesy of Lloyd Mitchell Photography

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RonBioPhotoPrior to his retirement, Ron Ayotte was one of four Deputy Fire Chiefs with the Marlborough Fire Department, Marlborough, Massachusetts. Ron began his career with the MFD in November of 1981, was promoted to Lieutenant in November of 1988, Promoted to Captain in August of 2000 and was promoted to Deputy Chief in 2006. Ron’s responsibilities at the MFD include incident command, communications, plans review, inspections and training. Ron also works per diem in the Support Services division at the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services/Massachusetts Firefighting Academy, working support for various Academy programs, including Recruit training, Call/Volunteer training, Certification and LNG-LPG firefighting training. Ron’s writings and musings can be seen at Chief Concerns.
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1 Comment

  • Heather says:

    It’s sad that we live in a day and time that this is true – But this is a great article for essentially anyone in a customer / public facing position. Being vigilant and preventing an issue is absolutely more effective than trying to clean up a mess after the fact.

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