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Day in the Life of a Public Safety PIO

Municipal public information officers rarely have a 9-to-5 job, but work hours can be even more unpredictable for those responsible for keeping residents informed about public safety and emergency services.

"Law enforcement is a 24-hour, 365-day-a-year job; it's the same for public information officers," said Jennifer Timmons, who has been the public information officer for the Columbia Police Department for the past 8 ½ years.

Jennifer Timmons, public information officer, Columbia Police Department
Jennifer Timmons, public information officer, Columbia
Police Department. Photo: City of Columbia.

Like other public information officers, Timmons starts her workday before she even gets out of bed in the morning — checking her phone for texts or emails for information about crimes that may have happened overnight for the first hint of what to expect at work that day. Jump starts are common for PIOs, who know that quick responses go a long way in building trust and sharing necessary information with the press and the public.

Some municipalities have one or two public information officers who handle getting the word out from all departments. Others break out their public safety PIOs for police and fire departments. In Anderson, fire and police have their own PIOs, each with knowledge about their departments and an understanding of what can and can't be made public during incidents. The two departments work together on overlapping crimes, such as arson, and they also work with agencies that may be called in for assistance, such as the State Law Enforcement Division.

Travis Poore is both a firefighter and the designated public information officer for the Anderson Fire Department. He is a captain managing a shift of 19 firefighters who work 24-hour shifts about 10 times per month. Poore also rides the ladder truck that leaves the building for structure fires and wrecks with entrapments. His PIO duties don't take as much of his time, he said, noting that it mostly requires that he always answers the phone and listens to the radio to hear what is happening around the city.

Lt. Travis Poore, public information officer, Anderson Fire Department
Lt. Travis Poore, public information officer,
Anderson Fire Department. Photo: City of Anderson.

"Any time we have a fire, one of the news organizations will normally call me and try to get more details of what has happened. So most of the time I will either call the incident commander or wait until he sends me the report so I can read it and then call the media back to give the details that they are looking for," Poore said. "I will also try to get some pictures that some of the firefighters have taken and send them those as well."

Summerville has three public information officers. Mary Edwards is responsible for town government issues such as annexation, roads, parks and finance, while Lt. Shaun Tumbleston handles police public information and Capt. Jeremiah Lee is responsible for public information for the fire department.

"The fire department and police department are huge divisions, and I believe it's important to have someone dedicated to each to spread the word about all the good our men and women in public safety are doing," Edwards said. "The public needs someone who's knowledgeable in what their municipality is doing with their growth in roads, buildings and economic development. Lt. Tumbleston and Capt. Lee work hard to make sure the public is safe and in the know at times of crisis. My colleagues and I work extremely well together."

At Summerville Fire and Rescue, Lee serves as a fire and life safety educator as well as public information officer. He said he came into the position in July 2019. Before then the PIO functions had gone through Edwards. He went to work pushing out safety-focused communication, and he said that the department, "having a face in the community" through things like prevention outreach, is noticed and appreciated by the public.

Capt. Jeremiah Lee, public information officer for Summerville Fire and Rescue, speaks on camera.
Capt. Jeremiah Lee, public information officer for Summerville Fire and Rescue,
speaks on camera. Photo: Town of Summerville.

For incident response, Lee will put out information through social media as appropriate. He sprinkles those posts with things like fire safety tips, public events notices or information on hydrant flushing. He uses press releases for cases like incidents that cause significant property damage.

"It's good to get ahead of the news media, get something out to them and have that working relationship," he said.

In Columbia, Timmons works closely with Police Chief William "Skip" Holbrook and Deputy Chief Melron Kelly, along with criminal investigators from various departments. She also meets regularly with the department's marketing manager to discuss upcoming projects.

"Typically, for major crimes, I will receive a phone call from the on-duty watch commander and can respond to a crime scene accordingly to disseminate information to the media and public," she said. "At CPD, we have a 'watch commander' system. That means, a regularly assigned lieutenant will keep the chief, deputy chief, majors and myself aware of major incidents that happen after 5 p.m. That effort helps to keep the flow of information continuing and allows everyone to be on the same page," Timmons said. "Before this system, I was on call 24 hours a day so the media would call me at all hours of the day for information, whether it was 2 a.m. on a Monday or 6 p.m. on a Sunday. Now, the calls after-hours have diminished. The media still receives valuable information."

Web presence for public safety PIOs can include both monitoring and posting on social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Next Door and department websites.

"Here at CPD, we use the platforms for a variety of reasons and don't just focus on crime," Timmons said. "There needs to be a balanced mix of information to include positive works of police officers, CPD-sponsored events and community-policing initiatives."

Summerville, which has social media accounts for the town overall as well as police and fire, also launched an alert center in August, which allows the public to sign up for emergency and nonemergency alerts about things like road work, traffic, weather, elections, jobs, events, calendar posts and more.

Edwards and Timmons both worked as reporters in television news before moving to their jobs in public information. Timmons spent 11 years as a TV anchor, reporter, producer and editor in Columbia and around the Southeast, while Edwards worked at WPDE in the Florence-Myrtle Beach market for several years.

"I remember what it's like to need to get a script approved by your assignment editor and news director at 4 p.m. to package for air at 5 p.m.," Edwards said. "Reporters want to get their story as accurate as possible, and it's important to keep that good relationship with the media who will help get your message across to the public."

In Anderson, Poore echoed the advice to be responsive to media.

"The advice I would have is to always be nice and try to get the media the information they ask for because they can make you look good or bad on camera," Poore said. "Be mindful of the deadlines they may have in getting the information out and on any media briefings. Be prompt in responding."