Public Information Officers Get Disaster Training

PIO TrainingPublic Information Officers (l to r) John Argumaniz of the Irving Police Department, Sgt. Eric Bruss of the Santa Fe Police Department and Capt. Wes Priddy of Travis County Sheriff's Office hold a mock press conference at a recent LEMIT training session.

Public Information Officers from a wide spectrum of law enforcement and educational agencies were immersed in a world of routine press releases and large scale disasters during a three-day training at the Bill Blackwood Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas (LEMIT).

The Incident Command Simulation Training (InCoSiT), a cutting edge crisis education facility, held a Public Information Officer Training in Huntsville from Sept. 7-9. During the three-day session, attendees learned about essential tools to perform public information duties during day-to-day operations, crisis situations and large scale disasters, including writing press releases, participating in interviews, holding press conferences, and understanding their role in the National Incident Management System.

"You immerse yourself in the glare of the lights and allow yourself to know that you can think through the process," said Capt. Wes Priddy of the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, who participated in the training. "It showed me that I can manage my anxiety and perform my job. The way to deal with that is to go through the process and manage the anxiety."

The Public Information Officer Training is held twice a year, with an advanced training opportunity available once annually. The advanced training includes the use of social media, high profile cases, legal issues and Open Records requests. The next PIO training at LEMIT will be held in Spring 2011.

"We look at every function of the PIO focusing on the environment, deadlines, audiences, public relations and good story promotion, and interagency cooperation as well as communication and the writing process," noted Magdalena Denham, a project manager at LEMIT who spearheaded the training.

While learning the skills of how to compose a press release and conduct interviews and press conferences, attendees discuss dress code, image, etiquette, emotions, statement preparation, identification of speakers, response to questions and follow-up information for reporters. Their individual performance is assessed by subject matter experts, who provide valuable feedback and share best practices.

The group also learns about the internal working of the media, including the structure of a newsroom, the Public Information Act, and opportunities to work as allies through such avenues as Crime Stoppers, 800 tip lines or Emergency Alert Systems such as the Houston Regional Amber Alert Plan.

The training is immersive as participants engage in a range of relevant, real-life scenarios driven by one-on-one interviews, press conferences and crisis management functions. Scenarios incorporate case studies covering local criminal activities, controversial cases or high media interest incidents, such as a child pornography ring involving an officer.

The training culminates in re-creation of a Joint Information Center, which is activated in the event of a large scale disaster. The exercise, which replicates a biological attack on a crowded outdoor theater in Houston, involves information gathering and disseminations, phone banks, and a joint press conference. Its purpose is to equip the PIOs with awareness of the importance of public information during critical incidents and their role in keeping the public reassured and well informed.

Among the presenters at the September training were Lt. Bryan Carlisle, the PIO for the Shenandoah Police Department; John Steiger, an assignment editor for KPRC Channel 2 in Houston; Chuck Wolfe, the former News Director and Anchor at KIKK Radio in Houston and co-chairman of the Houston-Galveston Regional PIO Network; and Magdalena Denham and Dara Glotzbach of LEMIT.

The Public Information Officer Training began in February 2008 and, to date, approximately 250 individuals have participated. Among the organizations represented in September were police departments in Austin, LaPorte, Waller, Lufkin and Huntsville; the Travis County and Rusk County Sheriff’s Offices; Harris County Precinct 4; the Cleveland Independent School District; and San Jacinto College and Stephen F. Austin State University.

Law enforcement officers can earn 30 hours of Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education credit and are prepared to take the National Incident Management System 702 certification test from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The later is compulsory for all potential PIOs participating in a Joint Information Center during a disaster.

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