Ask a PIO: What’s the best way to emphasize the importance of social distancing?

Four fire department representatives share their tips for reinforcing health and safety messages during the pandemic


With protesters in some states calling for an end to stay-at-home and social distancing orders, many first responders and healthcare workers are pleading with the public to abide some the guidelines to help minimize the spread of COVID-19.

FireRescue1 Executive Editor Fire Chief Marc Bashoor shared a plea with protesters, asking the question, “Isn’t our collective ability to be safe far more important than any one person’s right to assemble?”

Public information officers (PIOs) – also known as agency spokespersons, media relations managers and similar titles – play a vital role in helping spread health and safety messages to the community and reinforcing directives. Such efforts are even more important when there are conflicting or confusing guidelines among locales, not to mention the growing frustration of people who do not agree with the guidelines.

The Seattle Fire Department started Friday Night Lights where fire engines and ladder trucks drive slowly through residential areas with assisted living and long-term care facilities on Fridays from 6:30-7:30 p.m.
The Seattle Fire Department started Friday Night Lights where fire engines and ladder trucks drive slowly through residential areas with assisted living and long-term care facilities on Fridays from 6:30-7:30 p.m.

We asked several fire department representatives to share their tips for how to reinforce the current messages related to stay-at-home orders and social distancing. Here’s what they had to say:

Pete Piringer, Chief Spokesperson, Montgomery County (Maryland) Fire & Rescue Service

If there’s anything we’ve learned from the response of local governments’ communicators to this pandemic, it’s that in times of crisis, many opportunities present themselves for PIOs to be a go-to trusted source of information. The shared information and resources, support and checking in with those in your agency, broader government and community are perfect examples of the ways social media platforms can bring us together and make good things happen and empower people to take action. 

When it comes to the best way for emergency services to emphasize the importance of social distancing, wearing face coverings or simply washing your hands, I think of the PIO mantra that is spoken about in many FEMA public information classes: “Get the right information, to the right people, at the right time, so they can be empowered to make the right decisions.”

Not every government department or agency has the advantage of skilled social media communicators during a crisis. With proper reputation management, before a disaster strikes, many emergency services PIOs have developed the skills and knowledge to be trusted sources of information with consistent and continuous safety messaging. 

Consider the eight-step crisis communication model to be effective during a crisis:

  1. Assess the current situation
  2. Set communication goals
  3. Identify intended audiences
  4. Develop and pre-test messages
  5. Select channels and activities
  6. Develop an action plan
  7. Develop and pre-test materials
  8. Implement, evaluate and modify plan

When it comes to PIO reputation management and becoming a trusted source of information, remember to get it first, get it right, get it out! 

Kristin Tinsley, Sr. Communications Manager/PIO, Seattle Fire Department

Those of us who serve as PIOs have seen firsthand how the stay-at-home orders have changed the way we engage with our community and media partners. In a time of crisis, it’s important that we let our community know we are here to serve and will respond to their 911 calls.

We have put a large emphasis on social media outreach and have tried to think of out-of-the-box ideas to share our messaging.

In March we put together a video of firefighters highlighting safety tips while dancing to the Bee Gees song “Stayin’ Alive.” This video was shared widely and provided a positive and uplifting mood to a very stressful time in all our lives.

In April we began a new engagement effort called Friday Night Lights. Our fire engines and ladder trucks drive slowly through residential areas with assisted living and long-term care facilities on Fridays from 6:30-7:30 p.m. We flash our lights to thank our community for staying home, and to let them know we are here to serve during this challenging time of battling COVID-19. This event has been an effective way for us to brighten the day of many in our community, including kids who have celebrated their birthdays while in quarantine.

During Friday Night Lights, Seattle members flash the apparatus lights to thank the community for staying home, and to let them know the department is here to serve during this challenging time.
During Friday Night Lights, Seattle members flash the apparatus lights to thank the community for staying home, and to let them know the department is here to serve during this challenging time.

Our public information team has partnered up with our counterparts in King County to share ideas and coordinate on engagement, which has been very valuable to ensuring we are consistent in our messaging and are sharing resources. 

We have also changed how we partner with media outlets. Policy and public education interviews are conducted by Zoom, Skype or Microsoft Teams, and interviews at the scene are conducted 6 feet apart. We have implemented a “pool” reporter policy, only allowing one agency from radio, TV and print at news conferences. PIOs arrive early to media events and utilize a tape measure to mark spots 6-feet apart for elected officials.

As a fire department, it’s important we continue to lead by example and show our community that we too are doing our part to social distance.

Jonathan Baxter, Community Affairs and Media Relations Officer, San Francisco Fire Department

The San Francisco Fire Department has shared the messaging strategy developed by our state and local partners for the current Stay at Home Order, and reevaluate these daily with our Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and Joint Information Center (JIC).

Here are some specifics that we, as a fire and EMS provider, have adopted:

  1. Make sure the messaging is clear. For example: A Stay at Home Order with allowances to go out into public is in effect. These allowances require social distancing.
  2. Make sure that our employees practice social distancing while not at an emergency scene (shopping, training, around the fire or medic station, while in public NOT on an emergency call).
  3. Provide social media and traditional media posts for practicing social distancing, covering: How do you practice social distancing? Why do I need to do this? What if I cannot, such as while jogging past someone? (Answer: Try not to move around; stay 6 feet apart; and wear a face covering.)
  4. Re-emphasize that staying at home saves lives, and if you must go out for essential needs or activities, practicing social distancing and wearing a face-covering reduces the chances of spreading the virus.
  5. Provide messages in ASL and other languages, with visual infographics when applicable and available.

In short, the best way to re-emphasize the importance is to set the example, push the message, and educate those who are seen not practicing the defined practice.

Make sure that our employees practice social distancing while not at an emergency scene. (Photos/SFFD)
Make sure that our employees practice social distancing while not at an emergency scene. (Photos/SFFD)

Some messages we have provided to the public:

  • We are here for you this holiday weekend; please be here for our families and us by Staying Home
    #STAYHOMESTAYHEALTHYSAVELIVES
  • We are here for you today; please be here for our families and us by Staying Home
    #STAYHOMESTAYHEALTHYSAVELIVES
  • When we are not on shift, we are practicing the same Stay at Home measures that you are. When we go to work to make sure you are as safe as possible, we ask that you help us stay as safe as possible by adhering to the Stay at Home Order.
  • The life you may be saving could be yours or your loved ones. Stay Home, Stay Healthy, Save lives.
  • The life you may be saving could be yours or your loved ones. Practice Social Distancing and wear face coverings when out exercising your right to essential needs and activities.

The San Francisco Fire Department has been practicing these guidelines since Jan. 25, 2020. At the time of this

K9 Xoro is helping with animal PSAs, such as reminding people not to break the social distancing when walking pets and while at dog parks. (Photo/Jonathan Baxter)
K9 Xoro is helping with animal PSAs, such as reminding people not to break the social distancing when walking pets and while at dog parks. (Photo/Jonathan Baxter)

writing, we currently have ZERO employees on quarantine and ZERO COVID-19 cases in our Department. The Department has transported over 100 COVID positive patients and performed resuscitations on several. That has meant that several hundred members have come into contact with the virus, some more than once. Thanks to an adequate supply of PPE, we’ve had no cases in the department so far, but if the public doesn’t continue to follow Public Health guidelines, our PPE will run low, and we will be more exposed. Additionally, early implementation of hygiene measures at stations along with safety checks prior and during shifts, have helped. Members practice social distancing at stations even at dinner time.

Sharing our experiences with community members re-emphasizes that we are all in this together, and the guidelines are working. Together we will flatten the curve.

Jamie McIntyre, Community Risk Reduction Manager, Spokane (Washington) Fire Department

“We are in this together. We all have a role to play.”

One effective method of community messaging amidst COVID-19 is to focus on positive community norming and collective impact.

Behavior change in normal circumstances is challenging for most. COVID-19 has brought unprecedented challenges physically, socially and economically within our communities. Public servants are on the frontline. We see the daily struggles people are encountering as they navigate the new daily abnormal. Emphasizing the collectiveness of a community can promote cohesion and positive support.

Physical distancing and other preventative practices have become essential to our daily practices. Bringing people together, while keeping apart, can present unique challenges.

Focusing on the why behind our individual daily choices can be a powerful message. Some do it for their immunocompromised child, grandparent, friend who works in the grocery industry, or medical community. Others do it for their own safety. Whatever the reason, defining the positive why of our preventative practices is important.

Our Priority is Taking Care of You. from SpokaneFire on Vimeo.

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