External Storytelling: Part 2 "Does Anyone Else Care?"

Jim Aleski

January 22, 2024

External storytelling is different than internal storytelling.

It's an operational process that requires tools. And just like everything else we do with tools – we need to train and practice if we want to be successful.

Once upon a time, we could count on the local media for help. What was a better news story than "hero firefighter saves kid!" But unfortunately, in many places, local media doesn't exist anymore. In the last decade, jobs in newspaper newsrooms have dropped by nearly half! In 2019, we saw a loss of about 26 media jobs in this country - EACH DAY.

The Los Angeles Fire Department was battling a serious overnight fire when a roof collapsed with multiple members operating on and beneath it. Unfortunately, one firefighter was caught in the collapse and killed. The Chief of Department was awoken at home and headed that way, expecting a significant media presence when he arrived. Instead, he found hardly any news people there at all. So two days later, he wrote a letter to the city's media outlets:

"I wondered how many news teams should cover a story where any human being suffers a violent death, two others are hospitalized and six more are injured as a result of the same violence. A/O (Apparatus Operator) Taylor gave his life protecting the people and property of Los Angeles as did eight other injured firefighters. They care. They demonstrated their caring by making the ultimate sacrifice. And they are asking, in fact the entire fire Department is asking. 'Does anyone else care?' Needless to say, the citizens cannot be expected to care if they are uninformed. It is a cherished responsibility of the Press to assure a thoroughly informed citizenry through complete and objective news reporting. The people of Los Angeles have become accustomed to the protection of a truly great Fire Department but this Department is laboring under the severe burdens of insufficient manpower, inadequate budgets, and the parsimonious attitudes of some politicians. We depend on the Press to cover and report on the dedication, hard work, and sacrifices made by the firefighters in this city. Without strong community support, the firefighters of Los Angeles will question the value of the sacrifices they make. We must have thorough and objective press coverage to maintain strong community support and thus effective Fire Department." - Los Angeles Fire Department Chief John C. Gerard

Apparatus Operator Tom Taylor died on January 28, 1981. Chief Gerard wrote this letter two days later. Over 40 years ago.

     "Fire Captain Mike Reagan and Firefighter Burt Sander cling desperately to facade of burning restaurant before being forced to let go because of intense heat and falling to ground. Chief's aide Ronald Lydecker is seen on aerial ladder after his dramatic rescue of Firefighter Bud Lawson. Firefighter Tom Shrout's hand (arrow) is seen reaching for Tom Taylor just before he fell to his death." - Mike Meadows, Los Angeles Times, January 28, 1981

Chief Gerard thought back in 1981 that it was crucial for his fire department's story to be told. He worried that they didn't have enough assistance from the media even back then. And that was at a time when local media was much more robust.

Yet, in the quarter-century that I've been in the fire service, I still hear leaders in the fire service say we suck at telling our story. 

We still don't want our pictures taken. We don't want to talk to the media. So instead, we say things like, "what does Facebook have to do with firefighting?"

In most ways, it doesn't. Firefighting and everything else we do is about putting in work. Aaron Fields said it in his keynote address at FDIC "work fixes everything… you want a shortcut… it's not on Facebook."

I agree. But we need to stop looking at Facebook and Twitter and everything else as the work.

They're the tools.

Tools to help tell the stories of the work that we do.

(Part 2 of 3)