Comms for fire and rescue services: Plan, prepare and test, but be flexible, too

Preparing for the worst is a joyless task - but it is essential for organisations to stand the best chance of dealing with an emergency or crisis effectively.

In fire and rescue comms, you must plan, prepare and test but be flexible too, writes Bridget Aherne
In fire and rescue comms, you must plan, prepare and test but be flexible too, writes Bridget Aherne

My session at #UKcomm17 last week focused on emergencies and crises and my top tip was to plan, prepare and test.

Issues will not emerge in a perfect vacuum where PR professionals can work through procedures in textbook fashion, so many of my insights demonstrated that while planning is vital, so is flexibility in the moment.

Ahead of the conference, I crowdsourced what people wanted to hear and suggestions included: approval processes, relationships, recovery phase and what didn’t go well.

Three examples from my career highlighted all of these and one feature evident in each instance was that not all went to plan – you must always adapt to the specific circumstances.

I spoke about a murder I was the lone press officer for. Releasing a key detail could help shape the media coverage, as well as protect the reputation of the victim and the integrity of our investigation.

However, I couldn’t reach the officer for sign-off as per process so, guided by a positive management culture and an ethical compass; I released the information without approval.

It led directly to the arrest of the offender – but not before I had a horrible 24 hours worrying whether I’d done the right thing.


Crises and emergencies ultimately mean something bad is happening for someone somewhere and that requires a human response and not just a framework.

Bridget Aherne, former comms and engagement lead at Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service

My second example was that of a gas explosion where a little boy died and numerous homes were destroyed.

While it happened early in a new team line-up, we’d established effective ways of working and built key relationships.

Procedures were not followed to the letter around coordination of messages from different agencies, but we did a good job because we knew our environment well and focused on outcomes, ensuring good PR sat at the heart of objectives to help the community respond to, and recover from, the tragedy.

The final case study demonstrated that, even when there’s little in place, you can get stuck in and make a difference.

I knew what good modern emergency PR looked like from previous roles where good arrangements and relationships were tried and tested – but I was only beginning to develop that when a £20m building caught fire on my patch in September 2014.

By getting involved anyway, I warned and informed the public successfully and helped an incident commander achieve their aim to keep everyone safe and restore some normality swiftly.

We delivered bad news but did so with good reason, explained ourselves and, by doing so, won public support, and prevented an emergency from becoming a crisis.

There were lots of gaps in that PR activity but identifying, evaluating and debriefing the good and bad did more, in one weekend, to establish better ways of working for the future than an entire year of work before that.

Plans – and testing them regularly – help ensure the right resources, relationships, equipment and channels are there when the worst happens.

However, equally importantly, planning also helps us understand the environment better to identify how plans can flex, because crises and emergencies ultimately mean something bad is happening for someone somewhere and that requires a human response, not just a framework.

Bridget Aherne is the former communications and engagement lead at Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service



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