Monday, June 20, 2016

When you can't say anything

I am a cinephile. I love movies. There, I said it. 
For the love of movies!  
Whether it's the razor sharp dialogue of Quentin Tarantino's movies, the impeccable filmography of Stanley Kubrick or the masterful storytelling by Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese, there's always something to learn from each of the works these directors turn out. 

But, while I appreciate the drama, I do have to confess my love for the slapstick. Caddyshack. Animal House. The Blues Brothers. And, probably my favorite, Airplane

For those who haven't seen this 1980 classic (And, I have to wonder who hasn't), it's the story about an Trans American Flight 209 flying from Los Angeles to Chicago that experienced numerous health emergencies, but couldn't land due to extreme fog. The majority of the action is straight faced, with several absurd sight-gags and exchanges taking place throughout that leave audiences laughing. For instance, there was an exchange between the Pilot Captain Oveur and Dr. Rumack, a physician on the plane who was assessing the health of the passengers:

Dr. Rumack and Captain Oveur fight to control the airplane
Rumack:  Captain, how soon can you land?
Oveur: I can't tell.
Rumack: You can tell me. I am a doctor.
Oveur:  No, I am just not sure.
Rumack: Well, can you take a guess?
Oveur: Not for another two hours.
Rumack: You can't take a guess for another two hours? 
And on from there. And, I realized after those lines were delivered and I wiped away a few tears from laughing so hard, that they are interesting ones when it comes to the world of public information officers.

Think about it. For most of our job, we are out there giving information freely to the public through the media, social media, our websites or whatever. But, there are times when we can't share certain information about what we are doing. 

Many firefighters could find themselves in this situation
For instance, my good friend and mentor retired Tampa Fire Captain Bill Wade told me how he would routinely show up on scenes crowded with reporters. He would get his briefing from the incident commander, come back to the reporters and give them the basics. His messaging in most situations was very simple:
  1. The structure was on fire
  2. We put the fire out
  3. The cause is under investigation
Now, why wouldn't he give the details as to what happened to cause the fire?  There could be a bevy of reasons, first and foremost is that the fire inspectors haven't yet had the opportunity to determine exactly what caused the fire. Could it have been an overloaded fusebox with a penny filling the gap in one of the slots? Could it have been arson?  Who knows, but the last thing that you would want to do is speculate. So, if you can't comment on something pending an investigation, say, "I don't know, but I can find out."  

Another important thing to remember are the laws in your jurisdiction may prevent you from releasing certain information. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) prevents the release of a tremendous amount of information. From patient names  and conditions to current or past diagnoses can be withheld from release. So, be sure to know what is covered. A quick call to your agency's attorney can help sort this out for you.

Talk to the hand, because the face ain't listening.
What you shouldn't do, however, is just not give out the information because you don't want to. Sure, we get upset with members of the media from time to time, but just keep in mind that the first amendment's freedom of the press in the United States, as well as local public records laws trump your desire to seek your revenge against a reporter who may be pushing your buttons. 

Always be sure you are in compliance with your local laws, or you may find yourself having to talk an airliner down with an emotionally disturbed fighter ace at the helm in the cockpit. The little room at the front of the plane. And, yes, I'm serious, and stop calling me Shirley. 


  1. Another great thing Capt. Wade would do when he showed at a scene was to ask the reporters - right away - what they had heard? I love that!