Reality Without TV: What Hollywood Doesn’t Tell You About Public Administration Jobs

This article highlights the Hollywood portrayal of public service jobs and explains common misconceptions about the careers.

Television shows like Law and Order and Chicago Fire paint a picture of public administration jobs that is not always accurate. In the interest of entertaining audiences, scenes often skirt the details. Because TV viewers only see certain aspects of public administration careers, they may develop an inaccurate image of what police, fire and EMS professionals actually do.

Media Depictions of Public Administration Professionals

When watching an episode of a cop show, it’s easy to get caught up in what is happening and not notice what is missing. These omissions of the day-to-day responsibilities of a public administration professional are the primary way that audiences misinterpret how people in these jobs serve the public.

Depictions of Police Officers

The biggest flaw with any TV depiction of a police officer is the passage of time. In an episode of Law and Order, detectives move cases along at breakneck speed. Everything from obtaining warrants to analyzing evidence happens in a much faster period of time than it would in the real world. Some portions of working a case take days, weeks or even months. But in an effort to keep the case exciting, a television show almost always skips over many parts of the investigative process.

In recent years, the CSI franchise has produced more misunderstanding about police work. Often called the “CSI effect,” the show has caused many viewers to believe that the state-of-the-art analysis used by CSI characters can solve any criminal case. Some experts insist that this misconception makes it harder for prosecutors to convince juries to convict suspects.

While some parts of police officer work are skipped over, media depictions often highlight the sense of responsibility that police officers and other public administration professionals have. They are regularly shown making connections with victims and witnesses and often describe their feelings of responsibility associated with the job. This is the reason why many in the public administration field go to work — to make their communities a better place.

Depictions of Firefighters

Professionals in the fire service field face some of the same problems as police officers. The major issue is that important parts of the job are replaced by nonstop action. Despite what Chicago Fire may depict, there is not a huge blaze threatening the city every day. In fact, most calls to a fire department are not even fire related, but in the world of Hollywood there’s always something to extinguish.

Much of the TV depiction of firefighters centers on life in the firehouse, with most firefighters living together. Thus the internal politics in the group are on display as interpersonal relationships come into play. This tends to be more accurate than other parts of the shows. However, some shows like Rescue Me depict firefighters as alcoholics, womanizers and generally distasteful characters.

Depictions of EMSDespite the high survival rate of CPR that depicted on TV, the true survival rate is much lower at less than 20%

Despite the abundance of hospital and medical movies and television shows, the EMS field does not get much attention. The few instances in which EMS professionals are depicted are even more unrealistic than other public administration careers. Most EMS depictions involve some kind of miraculous recovery.

The most popular method of emergency medical treatment in Hollywood depictions is CPR. According to a Duke University study of 97 episodes depicting CPR, 75 percent of patients survived the immediate cardiac arrest and two-thirds were discharged from the hospital fully recovered. However, the true survival rate among patients who receive CPR is less than 20 percent, according
to studies cited in a CNN story.

The Side Hollywood Does Not Show

Media portrayals of careers in public administration leave out details that are an important part of the job. Dr. Robert Skertich, a public administration professor at Point Park University, offers some insight into what the media fails to show.

Outreach with the Community and Other Departments

Hollywood often skips over much of the foundational community work that public administrators must engage in on a regular basis. They facilitate public education programs and make connections with those in the community. TV shows rarely highlight the interaction that is critical to maintaining the public image of departments.

All public administration operations also involve the input and assistance of one or several other government entities. “There’s always an interaction between public administration and other agencies or departments,” Dr. Skertich explains. This coordination may also involve interaction with private organizations.

Maintaining Documentation

The documentation process is rarely included in any depiction of a public administration career. But the reality is that for most actions taken by public safety officials, the proper filings must be completed. Police officers, firefighters and even EMTs often write reports, whether they’re describing what happened to the victim of a shooting or requesting equipment that will help them do their jobs better.  Hollywood often passes on depicting desk work because of a lack of action, but it is an important part of ensuring that all work is completed correctly and efficiently.

Extensive Training

In another effort to avoid slower plots, television shows or movies often neglect the significant training involved in public administration work. Police officers are always undergoing further training. This goes far beyond the early academy work, as almost all public administration professionals continue training throughout their careers.

The same can be said for entry-level positions, because Hollywood simply drops many characters into their careers in what often becomes a plot point. The reality is that a new firefighter or EMT will rarely see major action without extensive training. Some police officers never make it to a homicide department or become a detective, but Hollywood makes those jobs seem easily attainable.

Becoming a Public Administration Professional

 Training at a police academy typically lasts12-14 weeks and combines classroom work with physical training.
Despite what Hollywood portrays, there is a process to entering the field of public administration. “Every field is different,” Dr. Skertich explains. “If you’re looking into parks and recreation management, there’s a different entry there than there would be for the police department.”

Becoming a Police Officer

There are several paths to becoming a police officer, but here are some of the details of a common path taken.

Step 1: Complete Your Education

A college degree is attractive to police departments and sometimes a legal requirement for employment. A degree in public administration can help you gain the knowledge and skills needed to begin your career in law enforcement.

Step 2: Submit an Application

Completing an application formally enters you into the pool of eligible candidates for police openings. Depending on the need for officers, you may be immediately moved into a training program or placed on a waitlist.

Step 3: Complete Psychological and Fitness Testing

Most police application processes involve testing the mind and body in several ways. To ensure you are physically prepared for the job, you will undergo psychological screenings and lie detector tests. Physical tests will show whether you are healthy enough to work as an officer.

Step 4: Enter a Police Academy

Accepted applicants then enter a rigorous training program in a police academy. This training typically lasts 12-14 weeks and combines classroom work with physical training. In these courses, potential officers learn the ins and outs of being a police officer, including civil rights, self-defense and firearm usage.

Step 5: Join the Force

After completing the training academy, you will be prepared for a job as a police officer. You will either apply or be assigned to a department and begin your career. This step is akin to the traditional hiring process because an interview is likely required.

Becoming a Firefighter

There is a similar process for becoming a firefighter, with academy training and an extensive interview being a large part of the process.

“Some departments want you to already be trained and certified as a firefighter,” adds Dr. Skertich. “And in others, everybody starts as a basic recruit.”

These new recruits are unable to fully participate in all activities without the proper training, but these on-the-job experiences bolster their education.

Becoming an EMS Professional

Although EMS applicants focus more on mastering the medical knowledge needed to quickly treat patients in emergency situations, they must undergo extensive training before being certified and beginning their careers. “Most EMS agencies are not going to hire and train you,” Dr. Skertich says. “You have to already be certified.”

There are different kinds of training, as paramedics and EMTs require different levels of education and certification. Upon earning these certifications, you are free to apply for a job in an EMS department.

Behind the Façade of Hollywood

Television shows and movies offer an unrealistic spin on what public administration professionals do. Job duties deemed not entertaining are truly important and demonstrate how important these public servants are to our daily lives. With the right education, you can pursue a career in the public administration field. Point Park University offers six online programs in public administration, with specializations that lead to careers in police, fire service and EMS work.

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