PIO, PSO, OCD, with all these different acronyms, its very easy to get confused on who’s who, and what is what. Thank God the LAFD has the right stuff, or should I add, the right people in place to give us the up-to-date information we so desperately want or need. Twenty-four-seven, unbeknownst by many, a dedicated few work tirelessly, day and night, keeping the citizens of Los Angeles informed and the men and women of the LAFD safe. This dedicated and talented group of individuals are all part of the LAFD’s Community Liaison Office, and this is their story.
The LAFD PIO (Public Information Officer) Section is led by a civilian who oversees the unit, focusing on overall messaging, communications strategy, and particularly Departmental issues. This person reports directly to the Chief of Staff and Fire Chief. This position was traditionally occupied by an LAFD Battalion Chief, but a few years ago it was converted to a civilian role. Commonly referred to as the Community Liaison Officer, this job remains at the level of a Battalion Chief even though it’s now occupied by Cheryl Getuiza—a civilian. She is also known as the acting Public Information Director. Hard working and tireless, she is the glue that binds this tight-nit unit together and deserves more credit that is presented here for her efforts.
The Lead PIO position for the LAFD is currently Captain II Erik Scott. He handles the majority of interactions with the news media regarding Public Education and Emergency Incidents Interviews. His right-hand man is David Ortiz, a Firefighter rank PIO that assists and handles all Spanish media. Both Captain II Scott and Firefighter Ortiz work four 10-hour days a week. The Department does have two other members that rotate nights and weekends to cover on-call PIO needs to make this position sustainable. Currently, there is no monetary compensation for being on-call.
A unique aspect of the Department, unlike other public safety agencies, is that the LAFD has a dedicated PIO on-duty at their 911 dispatch center, 24/7, 365 days a year and they work on the platoon-duty schedule, just like typical firefighters. They call this person a Public Service Officer or P-S-O (LAFD specific term). They are the tip-of-the-spear and are frequently the first point-of-contact for a News Desk seeking information on an emergency incident. They maintain a presence at their desk from 7am until at least 10pm, but then are awaken for any Significant Incidents throughout the night. Long –story short, they constantly do three things: gather, analyze, and disseminate information. Since they are so close to the action at all times, and have a real pulse of the LAFD, they are therefore tasked with the crucial job of maintaining our social media accounts, which get tens-of-thousands of views each month.
The three PSOs currently are Brian Humphrey, Margaret Stewart, and Nick Prange, all of whom are firefighter rank, and use their experience and judgement to determine which of the 1,350+ emergency incidents we respond to every day, are worthy of public notification. They then send out alerts in social media on the incident. For the sake of simplicity, the LAFD categorizes the PIO responsibilities into three general buckets: Incidents, Events and Issues.
INCIDENTS—are the most frequent and basic, and typically are handled via phone by the on-duty Public Service Officer. As previously mentioned, the PSO disseminates incident information via public alerts that are distributed online, but also handles social media, and phone interviews.
If an incident grows large enough to require a PIO on the scene to handle news media interviews, they will consider that an EVENT. Captain Scott, or at times another PIO, will respond to the scene and handle the media and public information needs in conjunction with the incident commander and other partner agencies that may be assisting them.
The other kinds of EVENTS they handle are organized LAFD events, many of which happen annually like a 9/11 event, public safety holiday campaigns, press conferences, memorial services, fundraisers, and so many other types that sometimes Captain Scott and the others feel like half PIO/half event planner. Unfortunately, they are not available for weddings.
Finally, they handle ISSUES. Those are either things that sprout from an INCIDENT or EVENT, for example, their emergency response times, or if a building was up to date on its fire inspections; or larger organizational topics like diversity, litigation, CPRA requests, or an ongoing “investigative” media story that requires significant attention. ISSUES are typically handled by our Community Liaison Officer, or CLO.
Again, we categorize our PIO responsibilities into three general buckets:
Incidents, Events, Issues. RANK: FF, Captain, Chief. TITLE: PSO, PIO, CLO.
Though this model is far from perfect and continual tweaking is necessary as things change, this system of information dissemination has worked for the LAFD for over the last 50 years.
This is our basic framework, but they are often required to scale-up with a more robust information operation.
The following incidents always require a LAFD PIO response.
• Major Emergency fires
• FF fatality incidents
• FF serious injury incidents
• Civilian fatality structure fires
• Aircraft down incidents
• Confirmed Active Shooter and/or Terrorist Attack
• House of Worship Task Force Activation
This article is only a brief overview of what really goes on behind the scenes at the Community Liaison Office and how the men and women that work there keep all concerned informed—day or night. So, next time you are strolling through your email or social media platform and read a story about an emergency or another news worthy events occurring in the City of Los Angeles, don’t just take it for granted. Maybe take a second to think about the people who are responsible for getting you that information and maybe post a message of appreciation to show them your support. That’s a piece of information they would love to disseminate!