From an iPad on a tripod to a refined operation: The evolution of a FD-produced video series

First launched during the pandemic, “Storytime with Chief Cassidy” – a product of the Holliston (Mass.) Fire Department – won a 2021 Communicator Award for excellence

When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March 2020, schools nationwide closed their doors to help “flatten the curve.” Though a safety precaution in and of itself, the move eliminated a key point of delivery for fire and life safety messaging.

“There was a movement in the fire service where life safety professionals and injury prevention specialists – who would normally be in the schools teaching ‘stop, drop and roll’; ‘crawl out under the smoke’; ‘no two ways out’; and ‘firefighters are your friends’ – couldn’t because the schools weren’t there,” explained Holliston (Massachusetts) Fire Chief Michael Cassidy.

But people are persistent, smart and creative. Videos began popping up online featuring firefighters reading fire-themed children’s books – a substitute for those messages traditionally conveyed face-to-face. The videos resonated with Cassidy.

Holliston Fire Department Chief Michael Cassidy reads a children's book in the apparatus bay for the cameras.
Holliston Fire Department Chief Michael Cassidy reads a children's book in the apparatus bay for the cameras. (Photo/Courtesy of Chief Michael Cassidy)

Cassidy’s passion for the community fueled his decision to jump on the bandwagon and film the first episode of “Storytime with Chief Cassidy,” which featured the chief reading a children's book about the fire service. 

Two years and more than 30 episodes later, the now award-winning show is still going strong.

a little help goes a long way

For the first episode, Cassidy made do with what he had: an iPad and a tripod.

“It was awkward and clunky,” he recalled. “You see me basically up close to the iPad as I pressed record and then I back up. I’m sort of in full frame and then you hear me reading the book with a bit of an echo, and then at the end, you see me walking back over toward the iPad to stop recording.”

After sharing that first episode on the department’s social media page, Cassidy received an email from Bruce Gilfoy, the station manager with local cable studio Holliston Cable Access (HCAT), offering to help elevate the production value if the chief was interested in making the video into a series.

“Three days later, Gilfoy was at the station and we recorded our first couple of episodes, and they did the magic,” Cassidy said. “They went back to the studio and added graphics, the opening title, sound and closing credits, which makes me look like a much more refined operation.”

Now backed by video production professionals, Cassidy began filming multiple episodes and tagging local preschools, elementary schools and the public library to get the video into community members' social media feeds.

Eventually, the show became so popular, the chief started receiving story requests.

“I had people who said, ‘Oh, my kid loves your series. They were wondering if you might read this book, it’s one of their favorites,’” Cassidy said.

A local preschool loaned the chief a book showcasing women and diversity in the fire service as well.

‘Storytime with Chief Cassidy’ honored for excellence

The polished product and local success prompted Cassidy to submit an episode of the series for the 28th Annual Communicator Awards presented by the Academy of Interactive and Visual Arts. The submission followed a third place win at the Alliance for Community Media, Northeast Region Video Festival. 

“When I saw the call for nominations for the Communicator Awards, I thought, ‘Hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained,’ and submitted one of the episodes for consideration because I was proud of the work that we’re doing," he said.

The venture paid off.

Episode 20, “Story Time with Chief Cassidy: ‘Let’s Meet a Firefighter’” was honored with an “Award of Excellence,” along with other notable corporations, including The Walt Disney Company, Mattel and T-Mobile.

Cassidy said he selected that specific episode because of the quality of the information conveyed to the audience.

“Episode 20 was one where I had received a lot of positive feedback, especially from peers in the fire service,” he said. “They really felt that the key fire safety messages were spot on in terms of the language that was used. I think it highlights exactly the messaging we’re trying to put out there about the role of firefighters in the community and the role we play as helpers.”

The recognition validated the work Cassidy and the local cable team put into the series.

“It was very gratifying,” he said of the win, “because the list of those who received recognition from the Communicator Awards includes some very big, well-known organizations and people who have much larger marketing budgets to be able to produce content. I was humbled but proud of the work we were able to put out there.”

Making the transition back to in-person fire and life safety education

After pandemic restrictions lifted, Cassidy headed back to the local schools to provide fire safety messages to the community, but continues to film episodes of the show.

It’s a great way for us to have a larger audience than just people in our community, because I get messages from people from all over,” he said. “It might be a case where a grandparent lives in Holliston, and they’ve seen [an episode], but then they’ve shared it with their grandchildren who live across the country.

And, though he’s proud of the series, Cassidy is also glad to be back in person to share his fire service message with members of the community.

“Now that a lot of restrictions have been lifted and I’m able to in a room full of young parents with children at a story hour at the library – this is what energizes me,” he shared. “This is why I so much enjoy my role as a fire and life safety educator for my community – because it’s tangible. I see that I’m making an impact.”

How to start a life safety video series in your town

For anyone looking to start a similar series, Cassidy recommends reaching out to local television stations for support.

“If you’ve got a community cable studio in town, they have an obligation to work with the community, so it shouldn’t be a heavy lift,” he said. “It should be about building relationships.”

And those relationships spur quality content.

During the 26th annual Massachusetts Fire & Life Safety Education Conference last year, Cassidy and Gilfoy presented a workshop on the series and how other departments could duplicate its success.

“The benefit of working with your cable studio as opposed to just having your partner at the fire station record you on their iPhone is that they make me look good,” Cassidy said. “That’s why I was willing to put what we produced up for consideration for an award, because I really feel that the quality of what we’re producing is high caliber.”

View Cassidy's presentation below:


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