“Sprinklers Flood Residents Out of Their Homes” or “Headlines We Hate!”
The above headline equates to “Actor Breaks Leg Live on Stage” after the assassination of our President Lincoln. What is the absolute first thing you notice missing in that headline? Any facts? Anything more descriptive as to what occurred? Yes, and yes, sort of. Two things we lack in our industry in comparison to other trades are marketing and branding, known as advertising. Don’t expect contractors to be running to Madison Avenue to develop magazine ads, billboards, and TV commercials, but simple branding is a great start to getting our message out there. Be proud of your industry and show it at every opportunity. Address negative fire sprinkler news items as they happen. Terrible reporting is great reporting to the reporter and their editor until they are educated on the facts. Become known as a resource, the go-to person. If not you, I’m sure perhaps someone in your company could rise to the task.
Branding Ourselves With the Media Doesn’t Hurt
Back to my original question: To the first “yes,” what is missing? Those of you who follow me on LinkedIn know the word “fire” is one major missing item… we are the fire sprinkler industry. We are not the “sprinkler industry,” at least in my opinion. (I mentioned LinkedIn because when I relate to an article, I am often inserting “fire” into a quoted item). In presentations, programs, articles, and other deliveries, rarely do I slip and say “sprinkler” and not more appropriately, “fire sprinkler.” Many of us in the fire protection field (notice I wrote “fire” protection, not just “protection”) have trained ourselves to include the word “fire,” based on our heavy involvement in working and doing presentations to the public, the media, Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs), the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), Hellenic Societies, and many others. As another example, are the American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA) technical services staff members “protection engineers”? Nope, they are “fire protection engineers” and are introduced as such. Words and branding do matter. It is important that we pound into others that we protect lives, property, businesses, jobs, local economies, and the environment, to those outside of our industry, by using the words like “fire sprinklers.”
To the second “yes,” surely we can all agree—what is the headline premise focused on by the journalist? Keep in mind that they are not fire protection specialists. Often, they are younger and never exposed to a fire incident or any incident involving fire sprinkler activations. Plus, they are quick to tell you, “I’m only relaying exactly what the fire official (fire chief, fire marshal, public information officer (PIO), or other city official) told me.” That touches on another subject for a future article regarding our need for increased training and awareness of water-based fire protection systems for fire department personnel of all positions. A short piece of education describing what a system is, what it is there to do, how its components operate, etc. (Don’t throw rocks on the next comment as I was an AHJ and have been involved in loads of these issues.) Remember, fire department personnel and others are “civilians” in Nomex® unless they have been specifically educated on fire sprinkler systems beyond how to turn off the water or stick wooden door stops in an activated fire sprinkler.
What can we do to better for the fire sprinkler industry’s standing?
Create awareness—educate the masses when fire sprinklers are in the media! When a fire sprinkler activation occurs that you are made aware of, whether you are directly involved, or it is a local news item that you have come across, address any erroneous comments, and let AFSA know about (Fire) #SprinklerSaves. Fresh news is the best news to address. Something that was reported by a medium at 6:00 a.m. may be a dead item by 6:00 p.m. Acting quickly is often key.
As we know, with massive fire tragedies, the public’s memory and interest are short. The public’s apathy to their own safety, however, is lengthy. Mention the Station Night Club Fire to a civilian and see their reaction. “What, where, when was this?” People around 19 years of age today weren’t born yet when that unnecessary loss of 100 lives and 200 life-altering injuries occurred. More recently, mention the Philadelphia and Bronx tragedies that occurred, and you’d be hard-pressed to get a person to know of what you speak. It takes a moment, but those in our industry will know what you are talking about. Those not in the fire protection industries will probably not.
What the public does seem to think is that all the fire sprinklers activate throughout the building, distributing millions of gallons of water into their home. They also think pulling a fire alarm will start the water flowing. A recent Delaware municipal ordinance had a dissenting vote based on the fear of all her household and personal items getting wet. As portrayed in Hollywood, burnt toast and the smoke alarm are going to get everything wet. (My first thought always with these statements is “we can fix wet; we can’t fix burnt.”) Why? Because that’s the misconception that is reported, often by some fire service personnel, and we rarely correct and educate the media when it occurs.
Ready for your close-up with the media?
If a microphone or a camera is thrust upon you regarding an incident of fire sprinklers in the media, here are a few pointers from a presentation that I have delivered to several organizations over the last 20-plus years.
First, make sure you should be talking to the media yet—or at all. Regardless of your title—contractor or AHJ—you should be consulting with either your superiors, legal advisors, or both before making off-the-cuff remarks, prepared statements, or replying to legitimate questions. Is there someone better suited, better trained to respond? However, do not ever utter, “No comment.” That’s an automatic impression of guilt about something. Anyone in any capacity can use better responses along the lines of, “There is an active investigation, and I cannot answer any questions yet.”
This can also afford the time to develop facts and figures on fire sprinklers to provide to the media. Time to consult with others and legal advisors. Graphics, data, and illustrations go a long way in helping a journalist understand your overall message rather than just keying in on individual words. This also allows time to prepare to use appropriate terminology and steer clear of jargon such as “FDC.”
Everything is “on the record.” There is no such thing as a sidebar or “off-the-record” discussions. Have two or three key messages prepared that are appropriate for the situation you are walking into. A fire sprinkler success? Bridge the conversation about water damage to the fact that it was far less water than had there not been the benefit of a fire sprinkler system, and that everyone is alive and there is little or zero injuries, that the property will easily be remedied as compared to the option. Promote your key messages rather than simply responding to questions.
If it is a scheduled interview, research the journalist and come up with prepared responses to anticipate questions you may be asked. When you first get together, chat with the journalist. If there are sound or video specialists involved, acknowledge them and say hello. Thank everyone for the opportunity and time if it feels appropriate.
Always feel in control, be in control. It’s not their interview; it is your interview. Hopefully, both parties make this an informational interview and not any attempt for a “gotcha” moment. Most journalists are open to learning to ask more appropriate questions on subjects they are not familiar with. A recent article reported that a “… fire alarm causes water damage …”. That was way off base on a couple of levels.
If you are asked for a video interview in a studio, on location, or in your office (not a public mass media interview), start your response with the question asked by the journalist. Often, they will edit out the journalist asking the question and just use your response, so your response needs to include the subject first. If they do use the journalist’s question, they can edit out your first few words as well. I’ll also interject here that if the question is somewhat technical and isn’t quite worded for how you need to respond properly to get your key message across, feel free to make suggestions to the interviewer. If they know it will make them seem more knowledgeable about fire sprinklers and life safety, it benefits everyone. If you are familiar with, the “bridging” concept I mentioned earlier you can easily bring a live discussion back to your key messages and facts about fire protection. Bridging can be as simple as, “Let’s not lose sight of the fact that…” or “The real issue for discussion is…”.
Deflecting has its place when appropriate. If a question is better suited to another entity or another person, make a short comment about the better-suited person and why. Try to avoid looking as if you’re passing the buck. If you should answer but need further research, say so and do so, and then call or email the journalist when you have the answer.
Be honest, factual, cooperative, and sincere. Listen closely. Repeat your key messages at least three times, if possible, throughout—and follow up. If you will be “on camera,” give sound bites and be to the point. Most of all relax!
Don’t ever lie. Steer clear of acronyms. Do not answer for others. Don’t attack others (regardless of their position on fire sprinklers in homes, as an example). Don’t argue, and never assume the journalists know anything about fire sprinklers, standards, codes, or local laws. Don’t refer to an earlier answer—restate it. On camera, avoid short number or letter answers, create a sound bite. Never start a response using the journalist’s name.
Stay positive, avoid negative comments, be the expert, maintain your integrity, and represent our industry well when fire sprinklers are in the media! Many of you are well versed in speaking with groups of people, and you’ve got this! To the AHJs and contractors, who are or were, in the fire service or other positions, many of you are trained as a PIO and have delivered many interviews or taken part in press events. Those in emergency services and the fire sprinkler industry have the public’s safety at heart throughout our careers. Many of us reading this have a passion and know-how to educate the public and elected officials. Getting our message out better and more often is paramount from a marketing standpoint. Let’s advertise our successes and push back at negative news items. AFSA is here to help.
With our stepped-up efforts to educate the public on all levels, we will save more lives than anyone may already be aware of. Changing minds will change lives and change the future of communities. Changing the public’s perception will create the demand for fire sprinklers in all occupancy classes and save countless lives in the process.
#FireSprinklers = #FireSafety = #LifeSafety = #CRR (Community Risk Reduction)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dominick Kasmauskas, CFPS, is regional director of membership & chapter support for AFSA. He covers all states in the Eastern U.S., supporting merit shop fire sprinkler contractors in technical services, training, legislation, and working with state and local governments.
Kasmauskas is an NFPA Certified Fire Protection Specialist® and serves on the NFPA 1031 “Fire Inspector and Plans Examiner” committee and is a former member of the board of directors for the NFPA Fire Service section. He was formerly a contract instructor for the International Codes Council, served on the ICC International green Construction Code (IgCC®) Energy & Water subcommittee, and served on the American Water Works Association (AWWA) Fire Protection committee. Kasmauskas also served on the board of directors for the Metro NYC Chapter of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) and is a member of the NY Building Officials Conference, Fire Code committee. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.