BLAZE MESSAGE: 14 lessons fire comms can teach everyone

sapA thousand flowers are blooming in this new era of digital communications.

Amazing things are happening, new rulebooks are being written and old ones tossed away.

But if you are too busy growing roses you won’t spot the great things happening.

Or in other words, look outside your own corner of the world and you’ll find great things.

And so it is with fire and rescue services not just across the UK but across the world. I’ve done some work in the sector and got to know some people and I’ve always left with knew ideas on how to do things.

Often, people in the sector don’t realise just how great their work is. Less in number than local and central government comms people from the sector communicate to save lives and to prevent them. I’d love them to be bolder. They don’t just get you to test your smoke alarm. They save lives.

One myth exploded, though. In the UK the comms is not geared up primarily for documenting heroic rescue. Prevention is better than cure. Statistics say there were 258 fatalities in the 12-months to March 2015 and 3,225 were taken to hospital. There were almost 155,000 fires. This is the second lowest in UK history.

Fire comms people need to move from the pedestrian pace of advice to business to communicating death and sometimes the death of their own colleagues. That takes guts. Not everyone can do this.

There is a community of fire communicators

The FirePRO organisation is the umbrella group for the sector and a bright bunch they are too. But Twitter also connects them not just across the UK but far further. The fact I asked a question about best practice on a Friday night and got a pile of responses is perfect evidence. Neil Spencer from West Midlands fire describes this as a ‘can do, will do, let’s give it a try attitude.’

Here are 14 things you can learn from fire comms

#1 Using planning to get your shizzle ready

Nobody wants an emergency. But they tend to happen and when they do public sector comms people have to react. I’ve lost count of the number of blank faces in local government when I ask what they’d do if a plane crashed, a bomb went off or a tower block started to fall down. Not so fire and rescue.

As award-winning Bridget Aherne wrote in a blog post for comms2point0:

“The way to sum this up quickly – and sorry to anyone who knows me because you’ll have heard me utter this phrase, annoyingly, hundreds of times before – you have to be proactive about your reactive communications.”

Lesson: Good comms planning always helps.

#2 Using Periscope for realtime situation reports

Lesson: If an incident is breaking live video from the scene to give situation reports has real value and can plug into online networks as well as media organisations.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last 18-months co-delivering workshops on making effective video for comms. It teaches people to plan, edit, shoot and post video. However, in an emergency the value is not the well-shot video. The value is have video footage from that particular spot at that particular time. Why? So you can communicate with people in realtime. In the UK, there is a duty on comms people in local government, fire, police and other agencies to warn and inform.
As this US example shows, a firefighter giving a commentary or even a brief situation report – has value. Don’t forget anyone with a smartphone and the Periscope app has the ability to fill that information vacuum. Questions can also be posed by people following the stream and answered by fire crew.

In an era where video is highly sought by media organisations online to be in the frontline is priceless.

#3 Using a hashtag

Lesson: A simple sharable hashtag can help spread a campaign.

One of the greatest uses of a hashtag by anyone in the public sector is the excellent #testittuesday tag. Started by Norfolk Fire and rescue it is that brilliant thing of basic advice shared as a hashtag. It encourages people every Tuesday to test their smoke alarm. As basic good advice it can be hard to measure the effectiveness or the fires that didn’t happen because of a test.

#4 Using Instagram as a channel

Lesson: Instagram can be used for soft power. Images of the work people to do interspersed with more serious messages.

Services across the world are starting to make headway with Instagram. Really, there’s no surprise. It’s not like there’s nothing to photograph. If there isn’t a fire there’s the equipment or the staff in the equipment. Kent Fire and Rescue Service excell in this area. A stream that is engaging, fun and personable people could do worse than looking at this.

Keep smiling after after a good night out. Being drunk and cooking don’t mix. #smilesafe #fire #firefighter

A photo posted by Fire and Rescue (@kentfirerescue) on Jul 12, 2016 at 5:41am PDT


#5 Using mapping

Lesson: Maps can communicate with the media and residents and reduce avoidable contact.

Back when I was a journalist we made a round of calls to fire stations on our patch at 7.30am, 1pm and 10pm. There were six in our patch and a further 14 in surrounding areas which we sort of covered. That’s 60 calls a call.

Essex County Fire and Rescue Service have a mapping page embedded in their website which gives news of incidents with some basic details. They also post images and videos which can be used with a credit. This must cut the amount of time on routine calls. Hats off to Sarah Roberts for this.


#6 Using the social web as a firefighter and human being

Lesson: People respond to people so let your people.

One thing I’ve long argued for is for public sector people to use social media as themselves. There’s far greater cut-through. People connect better to real people than a logo. So, it’s always inspiring to see real people doing just that. Thanks to @rubonist on Twitter for flagging this.

#7 Using the social web as a senior officer

Lesson: Using the social web allows senior people to be visible and to listen better. It also allows partners and the organisation to better understand their thinking and priorities. 

There has been a trend in recent years of senior public sector people using Twitter to engage, listen, share ideas and give some visibility to yourself.

#8 Using embedded social media video

Lesson: Embedding video to drop into people’s timelines can be a good way to communicate.

Sometimes things don’t always go to plan as this incident which saw five people die in Nechells, Birmingham. Video content posted to Twitter shared the press conference to the community. This could have been uploaded to Facebook too.

#9 Using humour and newsjacking

Lesson: Being creative about your communications and the channels you use can pay off.

As London Fire Brigade showed in their epic news jacking of the racy film 50 Shades of Grey imagination on comms works. A campaign followed in the wake of the film to talk about the number of times people had called for help with locked handcuffs, penis rings and other rather embarrassment-creating problems. The #50shadesofred campaign is a benchmark in public sector comms. Data driven it used a range of channels.

#10 Using data to allow people to build their own picture


Lesson: Data can be turned into something searchable to give people street-level insight.

Everyone’s experience is different. This is why it is refreshing to see West Midlands Fire Service use their incident data to allow you to search by postcode to see what incidents happened in your neighbourhood.


#11 Using Flickr as an image library

Lesson: A Flickr library can make thousands of images available for re-use.

Social photo storage site Flickr may not have the sexiness as Snapchat but as a place to be your public image library it remains peerless. There are several organisations in the UK using it well. However, the US use is the benchmark. Los Angeles Fire Department post images to the stream. They have almost 20,000 images. With an open licence anyone can use them. As the argument goes, public money paid for then so why shouldn’t with the permission of the photographer people and organisations re-use them?

LA fire


#12 Using Facebook for large communities

Lesson: Facebook pages are a start but not the last word on how people can be reached on the platform.

Pages can be a useful way to have some Facebook real estate although they deal with broadcasting to small corners of the web that can be shared on. Manchester Fire and Rescue and Scottish Fire and Rescue are examples.

But to really engage, you need to use Facebook as the page to comment and add content on other pages. Or join Facebook groups as an individual.

#13 Using Facebook for niche communities

Lesson: Facebook pages for smaller communities can be effective ways of reaching them. The Polish community, maybe. Or in Biker Down‘s case motorbike riders.

Facebook has the numbers so it is worth using. Seeing as it has the numbers yo can also carve out niches where people will congregate. There were more than 5,000 serious incidents with motorbikes in 2014. I’ve long believed that the single corporate page is almost always not the answer for large organisations. There are communities within them, so plug into them. If you are a biker the Biker Down page would work.

kent biker down

#14 Using Facebook quizzes

Lesson: Quizes reach people. Often people who are hard to engage with.

Facebook quizzes can engage with audiences that may well be resistant to leaflets and other comms. London Fire Brigade uses them well and creates them to accompany campaigns. They’ve done them to see if people fancy being firefighters, for example. With this one, they are celebrating their 150th anniversary with helmets.

london quiz 2

#15 Using Snapchat

nimesLesson: Yes, you can use Snapchat.

One of the good things about the web is coming across organisations doing good things in other countries. Take Sapeurs Pompiers Volontaires du Gard. They are a French fire brigade in Nimes in the south of the country who have an imaginative use of images on Twitter and Snapchat too.


Thanks for the input for this post from people across the Fire and Rescue comms community. In particular: Catherine Levin, Neil Spencer, Bridget Aherne, Sarah Roberts, Robert Coles, @Rubonist, Thanh Ngugen, Steven Morgan, Phillip Gillingham, Jim Williams, Pave Dhande, Leigh Holmes, Jack Grasby, Pete Richardson, Dave Walton and Dawn Whittaker.

FIRE ALERT: A slideshare and 12 things you can learn from fire comms

5870635462_d5997a095a_bSo, are you up to speed on how you’d handle the internal comms if two of your members of staff killed in a fire in a tower block? 

Or maybe you’d have it covered if there’s an explosion in a quiet street?

For the most part public sector communications can be pretty difficult. But with more than 500 deaths a year in fires in the UK there’s something uniquely challenging about handling the comms for a fire and rescue service. Especially at a time of tighter budgets.

How digital channels have utterly transformed communications is something that absolutely fascinates me. Forget six hours until the press conference. It’s now six minutes until the first tweet from an eyewitness and six hours until the first Facebook page set-up by residents.

You simply have to have social media in your emergency plan. It’s something I’ve written about before.

A few weeks back I was asked to speak at a FirePRO event in Manchester put together by the Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue. It was a rather useful event that gave an insight into the challenges. You can read the Storify the excellent Sam Thomas here.

Multi-agency use of digital media in a crisis

There’s a few small scale examples that have helped my thinking in Walsall. There’s the excellent use of social media by West Midlands Police and West Midlands Fire Service. It works because people on the ground have been given permission to tweet. So, when there’s an emergency there’s a network of people on the ground who can create an authoratative voice.

The approach in Walsall amongst police, council and other areas is simple. In a crisis, if it’s a police thing others with retweet. If it’s a council thing, others will share it.

The example of the Pheasey floods where 150 homes were flooded is an example of this. The presentation takes you through some of the tweets from that day.

Here’s 12 things that struck me.

1. There’s some cracking examples of social media case studies.  It’s at the sharp end and an ability to use different channels is essential.

2. In an emergency the first pictures will come from a resident. The Shaw gas explosion wiped out one house and damaged others. The first image didn’t come the day after in the evening paper. It came within minutes from a resident posting to Twitter.

3. Having a presence on Twitter helps get the message out in real time. Tweet within minutes and you’ll create an authoritative voice that people can home in on.

4. In an emergency think like a journalist. Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue sourced stories and content in the days after the explosion. The evacuated pets return. Families return.

5. In an emergency the traditional sign-off is dead. Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue kept partners up to speed but such was the speed that they needed to respond far quicker than waiting for sign-off from everyone concerned. The leisurely approach to news is over. Minutes count.

6. In a fatality put the organisation first and not the news media. When two firefighters died at a fire in Southampton Hampshire Fire & Rescue made a conscious decision to think about what they released. They decided to consider the needs of the dead employee’s work mates first. Then the needs of the organisation. Then the Press. That’s an important decision to make.

7. In a fatality put internal comms first. I’m massively impressed at the way Hampshire Fire & Rescure kept staff informed with things like daily updates from the inquest. That involved two comms officers rotating their coverage in the court.

8. There’s a need to have hard news skills in fire comms teams. Death sells. Death makes the media interested. To have the knowledge of how the media works and will react is an essential skill in this life threatening area of comms.

9. There’s a need to have digital skills in fire comms teams. With the changing news cycle social media is massively important.

10. Google hangouts are rather good. The line to Hampshire worked rather well.

11. Communications should be a job for specialists. It wasn’t an issue mentioned here but there’s a pressure in other parts of the country to create desk jobs for firefighters. Like PR. Or to make the cuts away from fire stations. Like in PR. But this is a fundamental mistake born from not knowing the value of proper communications. That’s actually an internal comms challenge for the whole of public sector communications.

12. It’s not just hard news. Much of the day-to-day centres around asking people to take greater care and not set fire to things. Digital communications can only be vital for this.

Hats off to speakers Bridget Aherne from Greater Manchester, Rachel Stanley and Dave Thackeray from Hampshire, Stuart Jackson and Paul Williams of Ice Creates and to Shelley Wright and Sam Thomas and her team for putting on an excellent event. There’s a seperate blog post about the Ice Creates work alone.

Picture credit

Fire hoses

GUEST POST: How Norfolk used Twitter to show a human face

Norfolk County Council and its partners did a rather innovative thing using Twitter recently. They told the story of five different public servants. It put a human face on what they do. I rather liked the idea. And I really liked the way they made use of Storify and Audioboo so you can catch-up. So much so I asked Norfolk County Council’s Susie Lockwood to write a guest post on how it worked and what she learned. On Twitter she is @susieinnorfolk. Here it is:

I should start by saying I’m not Dan, I’m Susie. Dan has very kindly invited me to write a guest post about a Twitter event I helped to organise last week. 

I’m a media officer at Norfolk County Council and on Tuesday, 4 October we tweeted the working days of five very different frontline service areas under the hashtag #nccourday.

We took our lead from Walsall Council and other public sector tweeting pioneers and sought to increase understanding and make people feel closer to the council and its services. But we also wanted to do something a little different to what had gone before, initially because we knew we stood to get more attention for the project this way.

We decided to focus on trying to convey a day in the life of five specific teams or individuals who work for the council, all in one day, ‘Our Day’.

We felt this would give a human and engaging feel to the organisation and our tweets while also demonstrating the breadth of work we do and the different ways our employees support and serve the people of Norfolk.

Five seemed like a good number too – manageable to resource but still giving us enough scope to show how multi-faceted the council is.

So on that Tuesday, I was out in mid-Norfolk shadowing and tweeting about the working day of two of our highway rangers while some of my colleagues followed an adult social worker, a shift of fire-fighters, our biggest library and our customer service team.

I’d say this approach worked better than we could have imagined, in ways that we didn’t really consider when we decided on it, and I’ll explain why in a short while. First, so you can judge for yourself, we’ve preserved the #nccourday tweets on Storify, have a look here (and you’ll make us very happy!), you’ll find each of the five strands that we ran on Our Day separated out into individual stories. We’ve included some of the retweets, comments and questions we got – and ‘Storifying’ the tweets has made me realise just how much interaction and support we got.

So what worked well?

I think our ambition to give the council a human face, or more accurately several different human faces, really worked. We used first names of our staff where appropriate and because my colleagues and I were tweeting as observers it had the feel of being fly-on-the-wall, helped by the fact that we, the tweeters, were ‘visible’ as narrators – we thought it was important to make it clear whose perspective was being tweeted and this meant we could react and comment ourselves.

We also supplemented the ‘official’ tweets with ones from our personal accounts, still using the hashtag, and this was adopted by some other staff who were involved in or aware of the event.

You can see from Storify that we received a lot of warmth in the feedback, and we were surprised to get no negative feedback about #nccourday on Twitter whatsoever, and I think this was in no small part due to the obvious human touch that ran through it.

It was also great to run the event across three well-established Norfolk County Council Twitter accounts. @Norfolkfire tweeted the fire-fighters, @NorfolkLibs tweeted the library and @NorfolkCC tweeted the rest. This meant we could reach more people and reduce the potential for confusion and the risk of clogging up people’s feeds from one account. It also meant that members of the communications team, where I work, got the chance to work closely with those people in the fire service and library service who are responsible for their social media work, and it was brilliant to share our knowledge and work together, it’s knitted us together where before, although supportive of each other, we were pretty disparate.

We’re already talking about other ways we can continue to link up and hopefully get other partners involved too – and on this note I think holding the event engendered increased goodwill towards us on Twitter from some of our peers in Norfolk too.

One of the best outcomes of Our Day was the boost it seemed to give the staff we shadowed, and their wider teams.

We chose the five service areas because they were ‘customer-facing’ and for the breadth they demonstrated as a whole, but also because each in their own way can be misunderstood and have a bit of an image problem.

Without exception we found the teams were really pleased that their roles were considered interesting and important enough to be featured in the event. And it did the profile of the communications team and our work the world of good internally.

By the end of my day with the highway rangers they were suggesting that I should come out on a gritter with them and do something similar again while in the customer service centre some of the team have expressed an interest in shadowing members of the communications team for a day too.

It’s also worth mentioning that we got really good traditional media coverage locally for the event, which of course helped to prove its worth.

We all think we probably could have got more coverage in fact but we were on a tight deadline because we wanted to run the event to coincide with Customer Service Week, for internal rather than external communications purposes, and really only had two weeks to plan the whole event from start to finish.

But of course you can always do more and having to get on with it and not having the chance to second guess and doubt our approach too much was no bad thing in this instance.

And this brings me to the final benefit – Our Day invigorated us!

It made us believe that we can ‘do’ social media and not to be afraid of it. We had played it pretty safe up till that point and I would heartily recommend doing something along these lines if you think your council’s social media endeavours could do with a bit of a kick start. I think the success of the event, for all the reasons listed above, has given us confidence, will make us ‘think bigger’ in the future and potentially be bolder in our choices.

Would we change anything if we had our time again? Well, not much. There were minor technical problems at stages but none were catastrophic, although perhaps we would have a clearer back-up plan in place next time. There were benefits and drawbacks to tweeting three strands from the @NorfolkCC account, and at times it was probably a bit confusing to follow (this feedback from within the communications team rather than from a resident or on Twitter) so we might reconsider this approach if doing something as broad again, perhaps using more – and even personal – accounts. And it would be nice to think of a way to involve other members of staff in a future event.

One employee tweeted us to congratulate us on Our Day and said he hoped he might be allowed to tweet his working day at some point – the challenge will be not letting Twitter interfere, or appear to interfere, with the important work done by our staff but it’s definitely something we’d bear in mind.

I’ll leave you with some stats, if I may. In the week when Our Day happened the @NorfolkCC account gained about 100 followers, which is more than usual (my estimate would be 20-30 on an average week). The #nccourday hashtag was used more than 550 times, with fewer than half of these coming from the three official accounts.

Do feel free to comment below (she says, making herself at home on Dan’s blog!) with any feedback or queries, or DM me @SusieinNorfolk or ‘me and others’ on the @NorfolkCC account if you want to get in touch.


Storify highlights of library staff’s day:

Storify highlights of Norfolk Fire and Rescue’s day:

Storify highlights of a social worker’s day:

Storify highlights of customer services staff’s day:

Storify highlights of highway ranger’s day:

Overall event highlights:

Audioboo on how Toby became a social worker:

Clare from Picture Norfolk on Audioboo: