DAVIDSON – When tragedy strikes, it’s firefighters and paramedics who are on the front lines, seeing the worst firsthand. First-responder Dion Burleson is also tasked with informing the public as events unfold and answering tough questions in the aftermath.
Burleson is the public information officer, or PIO, for both Denver and Davidson fire departments. Though he’s been the go-to communication guy for many years, he’s officially been Denver’s PIO for at least five years and Davidson’s since June 1.
Burleson, who started his first-responder career in 1987, has been with the Denver Fire Department since 2000 and Davidson since 2007. He works full time in Denver in 24-hour shifts and part time, equaling 1,000 hours a year, in Davidson.
Burleson jumped on the opportunity to gain training as an information officer through a course offered in Hickory in the early 2000s.
Since then, Burleson’s been to classes in Raleigh and Seattle, Wash. He plans to attend an advance class in Maryland within the next year or two.
“It was something that caught my attention,” Burleson said. “This is about reaching out and interacting with your community because your community is why you’re here. Those people in the community, they’re our customers, and they entrust us in their time of need.”
Both Denver and Davidson have had hard “times of need” this past year, in which Burleson was the line of communication between the departments and the public.
In May, a house fire on Grey Road in Davidson took the life of the home’s lone resident, whose body wasn’t found until the day after the blaze. The situation tested Burleson’s discernment on what information to release to the public while being sensitive to the victim’s family.
“You don’t go into intricate details when you’re talking about something as tragic as that,” he said. “You don’t go into how badly burned someone is or how hard it is to recognize someone who is burned that bad. You have to show sensitivity.”
Having Burleson in situations like that allows the command staff to focus on the situation while he handles the media, Davidson Fire Chief Darren McIntosh said.
“It was a difficult couple of days for us,” he said. “He told me ‘I got this. We’ll handle it together. You just let me do what I do. I’ll help you the best I can.’ Truly, that’s what we did, and he was very valuable.”
Whereas that situation was one where Burleson provided information on how the department reacted to a service call, an internal incident in the Denver and East Lincoln fire departments prompted Burleson to help administrators be forthcoming with the community.
In July, former Lincoln County fireman Lee Keever was charged with two felony counts of obtaining property by false pretenses after allegedly taking nearly $22,000 from both eastern county fire departments.
Burleson worked with the fire chiefs of both departments to draft a letter to the community, which was posted on their websites and Facebook pages, so the organizations could be transparent about what was happening. Once word was out, Burleson worked with the media in answering their questions.
“(The fire departments) didn’t have anything to do to take part,” Burleson said of the fraudulent actions. “This was one person, but one bad apple could spoil the bushel.”
“I would much rather push the information out at our own will than be forced to provide information if somebody asks,” Denver Fire Chief Jay Flynn said.
Flynn described the passion Burleson has for being the middleman between the departments and community, noting his training and understanding of the importance of giving accurate information.
“He has a gift in dealing with the public and media and being able to word difficult statements and difficult situations in an appropriate way,” Flynn said.
As technology has grown, Burleson has seen how the role of a PIO has morphed into just more than the go-to person for media. He’s also responsible for the departments’ websites, social media accounts and public relations. In Davidson, he often tag-teams communication with the town’s PIO.
Though the structure of the two departments is different in that Denver’s department is a third-party contracted agency hired by Lincoln County and Davidson is a municipality of the town, Burleson’s role as a PIO is similar at both.
“We want to keep our customers and tax-paying citizens informed as to what’s going on, the happenings, the needs,” Burleson said. “The public and the community have a right to know what’s going on, and they’re very appreciative of being informed and kept informed.”