dealing with the death of a colleague - help is at hand

Kathy Stacey is Head of Corporate Communications at Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service and Bridget Aherne is Head of Corporate Communications and Admin at Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service. They are Chair and Vice Chair of FirePRO and here they tell us about how they developed a toolkit for fire and rescue communicators in case the worst should happen…

by Bridget Aherne and Kathy Stacey

The death of a colleague is unthinkable and the idea that someone we work with could lose their life at work is just awful – but that terrible possibility is one that we in the emergency services must face.

Deaths in the line of duty are, thankfully, rare but each and every single one is a devastating event that has an enormous impact on family, colleagues, organisations and all those connected to the person or people involved.

Effective communications are vital and central to everything from informing families in the right way, helping people grieve and ensuring they get the full facts to explaining to the public what’s happened and supporting a thorough investigation.

It is a difficult issue for us to deal with and one that we don’t want to prepare for – but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t: we should plan, test and prepare so we are equipped to do the best job we possibly can for our colleagues.

FirePRO is the network for communicators in the fire and rescue service in the UK, like AHCM, APComm and LGComms, and aims to provide a network, opportunities to collaborate and professional development specific to communicators in the sector.

At the FirePRO conference in 2013, we ran an unconference and it emerged that numerous colleagues were trying to develop difficult death in service plans and policies in isolation so we decided to get people together.

As a result of just a couple of meetings and an appeal for people to submit their documents and materials, we have created a death in service toolkit.

It is not a definitive communications plan – there is no such thing for a terrible event as, firstly, it would be glib to try and pre-write statements that announce the loss of a colleague and, furthermore, how can you possibly pre-empt the worst happening and articulate something that is very unusual and will most likely happen in incredibly unique circumstances?

It does contain some helpful advice on considerations that might need to be made in the first hour, 24 hours and beyond, suggestions of key stakeholders and conversations communicators might want to have with them to prepare for such an event and samples of plans from those who have lived through it.

Importantly, it captures the experience of some colleagues who have had to deal with such a tragedy and it signposts people to other resources such as the FirePRO online community that is hosted through the Chief Fire Officers’ Association website.

The plan was launched at FirePRO’s 2014 conference and, as well as that event, two development days and ongoing collaboration throughout the year, shows what can be achieved by colleagues ignoring geographical boundaries and recognising that we are better than the sum total of our parts – seeing ourselves as a group of professionals all trying to achieve the same things.

Other than taking the toolkit away, discussing its place in their own organisations, testing its validity occasionally and adapting it, it’s our sincere wish that no one has to use it. What we hope comes from this is more excellent collaboration.

If you work in an organisation – or even in an agency setting – use this case study from us to realise you’re not alone. You don’t have to deal with a difficult issue to realise the power of working with colleagues doing the same job elsewhere. Get involved with a network like FirePRO, LGComms, APComm or the AHCM, the Government Communications Service or the PRCA or CIPR, or get to one of the comms2point0 events, engage on @comms2point0, use this site or join something local to you – but please don’t struggle on your own.

The toolkit can be found here.

pic by Dan Slee