How to turn anti-fire service tirades into safety messages

Donald Trump's petulant, baseless attacks on fire service leaders is reason to learn PR jujutsu

The recent "Donald Trump vs. fire marshals" flap sent me back to when Bill Clinton was running for re-election. I was a newspaper reporter covering one of his outdoor rallies.

Many people arrived early to get a good spot; they waited around for hours. As the day wore on and more people filled the park, it went from relaxing on the grass to elbow-to-elbow standing; it was a hot day and Clinton was running late.

I took a spot on a flatbed trailer set aside for reporters and camera crews. From that extra elevation, I could see the heads in the crowd disappear as people passed out from the heat.

(Stacie Scott/The Gazette via AP)

(Stacie Scott/The Gazette via AP)

This was before I entered the fire service, but I remember very clearly how difficult it was for medics to find, reach and treat patients that day. I have no recollection if the event was over safety capacity, but it was crowded.

Art Hsieh, our EMS1 editorial advisor, did a nice job of explaining the difficulties large crowds present fire and EMS personnel. He also touched on the importance of fire safety codes.

Those of us in the safety business fully get that fire codes exist only to save lives — and many exist in reaction to what happens in the absence of codes. In his response to Trump's attacks, Fire Chief Marc Bashoor posted on Facebook a frightening list of mass-casualty fires in the U.S. where fire codes could have saved lives.

Those of us in the safety business also know how difficult it can be to pass and enforce life-saving codes. Many times change only comes after the tragedies like those Chief Bashoor listed. Yet all codes need public and political backing to work — and they are often attacked and resisted.

Blame game
The most well-publicized recent attacks came from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. In a week's time he unloaded logic-defying, vicious attacks on fire departments in Ohio and Colorado for enforcing occupancy limits at his rallies.

Trump, without facts or apparent forethought, called the fire service leaders incompetent and disgraceful and accused them of being politically motivated to limit rally attendance. In both cases, the Trump campaign officials signed agreements that set the maximum number of attendees.

So one question fire chiefs must answer is what is the best response, if any, to make if Trump or some other figure unleashes wild and baseless attacks on the department?

In both Ohio and Colorado, fire officials stuck to the facts of why fire codes are important for life safety and that they are determined by research, not by political affiliations.

Columbus (Ohio) Assistant Fire Chief Jim Cannell told Politico that, "The space was limited to 1,000 people due to safety concerns. They knew that was the plan, that it was 1,000 people max. We are just doing our job."

Columbus Battalion Chief Steve Martin told ABC News, "Life safety is always paramount, no matter what the event is."

Colorado Springs (Colo.) Fire Marshall Brett Lacey told Politico, "If the event people wanted more people inside, we have a number of venues … they could have secured."

Use the force
In both cases, fire officials did not allow their rhetoric or response to dip to Trump's level of emotional accusations. They didn't ignore it and they stuck to the facts. And that, says public relations expert Thomas Roach, is exactly the right approach.

"You have to respond. Stay on track, talking only about safety issues, and don't spend too much time being defensive," Roach says. "Just deny the accusation and move on. If you get kickback … use it as an opportunity to talk more about safety issues. Fire safety is an important issue, and we don't spend enough time talking about it.

"Anyone in the public eye who raises the issue is doing you a favor. It isn't the kind of issue that poses a threat. As long as you can say that you have applied the rules fairly, you have nothing to worry about."

In essence, Roach is saying develop communication jujutsu skills where your calm technique uses the opponent's force against him to move your agenda — life safety — forward.

It is important to exercise the right skills when dealing with the one, loud voice to ensure we have the ability to protect large, vulnerable crowds. 

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