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Public Safety Notebook: Why Work With the Media?

By Lee Benson | December 1, 2007

LAST TIME, I WROTE ABOUT THE midair collision of two news helicopters July 27 in Phoenix.

I wanted to illustrate some practices used in Los Angeles to promote safer operations when public-service and media helicopters are at the same incident ("Are We Our Brother’s Keeper?," October 2007, page 46). Out of respect for those involved, I didn’t feel it was appropriate then to talk about benefits, other than safety, that can occur for both types of crews when they work together.

In the past, when I attended conferences as senior pilot for the Los Angeles County Fire Dept. (especially outside the United States), somebody invariably would bring up the issue of working with media helicopters in L.A. Usually this was preceded by a comment like, "I bet those media helicopters get in your way," or "how big of a temporary flight restriction area (TFR) do you use to keep the media ships out of your hair."

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My answer to the first was: If you’ve got a good working relationship, the media will not be in your way.

My answer to the second was that TFRs help inform small-airplane pilots that today this particular chunk of airspace is not good for doing wiffer dillies. I would then conclude that they should only be used to inform media helicopters of a special risk to flight, such as a hazardous-material incident or a change in agreed-upon contact frequencies.

At one overseas conference, this subject turned into a fairly heated debate. I was asked, while part of a panel discussion, "How do you control media helicopters?" I gave my heartfelt, proactive response about the benefits of pre-planning operations with the media and all hell broke lose. The room was filled with public-agency helicopter operators. As a group, they aired some grave misgivings about working with the media. They felt the further away the media aircraft were kept the better.

I tried to explain my thoughts on the subject, but I could see I was getting nowhere. I had not yet given the presentation that was the main reason for my attendance, and didn’t want to lose my credibility with the audience. So I ended it with one final comment.

"I have yet to find a helicopter rescue service in the world that is over funded," I said. "When finances get tight for your parent agency, cutting expensive flight operations versus fire engines or patrol cars is going to be hard to resist. If you have done your job in helping the media tell your story to the public, then you may be able to weather the financial storm.

"I don’t care how good a job your organization is doing with its helicopters. If the served public doesn’t know about it, you’re in trouble."

Six months later, I got an e-mail from an attendee of that conference, telling me of a midair collision in that country between a public-service aircraft and a media aircraft working on the same incident.

In November 1996, a state-wide proposition in California eliminated the property tax-based support of all special districts. L.A. County Fire is one of those and a large percentage of its funding was so derived.

The proposition did allow for the districts to go back to voters and ask for reinstatement of the tax on a district-by-district basis. The department put such a request on the June 1997 ballot. Not only did the department need to win the vote, it had to get greater than a two-thirds majority. That looked like a pretty steep hill.

That hill turned into a mountain when a local agency got caught using funds approved in the November 1996 election for uses not approved by the public. The public was angry and I didn’t blame them. The department hired a great firm to run the campaign. But the interesting part to us, was that in the last week before the June 1997 election, an L.A. County Fire helicopter was on every local morning show at least once. Air Operations dropped water on top of a news crew. We hoisted a newsman on live television while he interviewed the crew chief on the way up. The end result? The tax request passed by 77 percent. Certainly Air Operations didn’t do that by itself, but it didn’t hurt.

So how do you foster good relations with the media in your area? The yearly meetings I mentioned in the last column are a start. But why stop with a meeting about frequencies?

Many of the younger media pilots have never worked a fire contract. We arranged for experts in fire control to come to the meeting and give a 20-min "chalk board" about fire tactics and terminology. Bingo. After absorbing the information provided, the pilot reporters were able to do a better job for their stations and the public. A bonus was the better informed public had a greater appreciation for what the fire agencies were up to, especially the helicopters.

Another idea that has worked well was an agency helicopter calling the media on the helicopter common radio frequency when its crew saw something interesting or were about to do something the media might want to film.

We invited media pilots to our helicopter dunker and egress training. They fly over water too and if you have never had such training, it’s something you might want to do. Fortunately, the media pilot that joined us in the pool was Desiree Horton — Larry Welk missed the opportunity. I told you there were some advantages to this stuff.

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