He’d never done it before, Philip Stahl thought. So why not, he thought.
Stahl’s first day allowed him to determine he’d made a good career move, and then his second day arrived.
“We had a bomb threat in the downtown,” explained Stahl, who resigned from a marketing position at Wheeling Jesuit University to be become the public information officer for the Wheeling Police Department in July 2016. “It took place on the land where The Health Plan is now constructing their building, and the day got pretty busy from that point.
“It ended up being homemade fireworks in a smoking bag that someone threw over the fencing, and someone reported it to the police department,” he recalled. “There was some panic involved, but it turned out to be really nothing but someone’s idea of a prank. That second day, though, turned out to be pretty interesting and a learning experience, too.”
Day Two also was the day when Stahl followed Chief Shawn Schwertfeger’s orders by creating social media accounts to use for sharing of public information. Now, the former TV news anchor had tweeted before and is a Facebook member, too, but he was pleasantly surprised with the attention the accounts received.
“I always tell people I don’t remember my first day, but I definitely remember the second day because of the bomb threat, and I sure was tweeted during that situation,” he said with a laugh. “After I had established the Twitter account, I was using it an hour later and then most of the rest of the day.
“I grew up here in Wheeling, so I know how safe a community we live in, and that is why, when I was thinking over my first year with the department, I thought we may have had four or five incidents that really attracted a lot of attention, but when I sat down and made a list, I came up with about 18 occasions when I worked a lot with the public and with the media about a particular situation. It’s been an interesting first year; that’s for sure.”
Stahl was raised in the Pleasanton neighborhood near the ballfield and playground, and he graduated from Wheeling Park High School in 2006. He earned a communication degree from West Liberty University in 2010, and was already employed as a cameraman for WTOV-TV on the day of his commencement. Stahl’s broadcast career began in high school on the, “Patriot Connection,” and then he continued at West Liberty’s Channel 14, where he became the program’s first student to produce and host a string of 65 news-related broadcasts.
As he was approaching his fourth anniversary with the Steubenville television station, however, he opted to change the course of his career. Instead of TV journalism, Stahl shifted to marketing at Wheeling Jesuit.
“I looked at the position at Wheeling Jesuit as a 50-50 shot. You either take it or you don’t. I could have stayed with TV and been happy, or I could have gone, so I had to pick one, and I chose to take the position at Wheeling Jesuit,” said Stahl, who has also earned in 2015 a master’s degree in education leadership from West Liberty. “It was a risk, but that’s what I chose so I could see what it was all about.
“I worked there for two-and-a-half years, but then last July I decided to take the position with the Wheeling Police Department as the public information officer,” he explained. “The job had a little more of news appeal to it, and I have always been a news junky. Public relations is a little bit like the news, but it’s more marketing, so that’s why I chose to put my resume in for this position. I had one interview and then was offered the job, and I took it.”
Chief Schwertfeger petitioned City Manager Bob Herron and Wheeling council members in 2015 to fund new job known as public information officer, a position with which he owned some experience while serving in law enforcement in Virginia. While a number of police departments have established similar civilian roles, a PIO was never officially employed by the Wheeling Police Department.
It is a day job, primarily, but if a SWAT situation, a vehicular crash on the Wheeling Suspension Bridge or on a nearby interstate or highway, or a rash of overdoses take place, Stahl is often on the scene, too.
“No one has done this job ever, and I am the point person for the media so I can answer as many of their questions as I can while the officers are working the cases. Some people may think I am actually a police officer, but I am not,” said Stahl, who at times also fills the same role for Fire Chief Larry Helms and the Wheeling Fire Department. “I don’t wear a badge, and I don’t wear a gun.
“To the public, I am the manager of information when it comes to informing the public via the media or through social media and press releases,” he said. “I let people know what to do in certain situations so they can remain safe, and I do that in as many ways I possibly can.”
But after Independence Day 2017, Stahl believes he needs to discover yet another avenue to travel while attempting to reach as many residents of the city of Wheeling as possible.
The booms were big, often, and concerning to many who called 911 dispatchers with complaints from all corners of the Friendly City. The members of the West Virginia Legislature approved in 2016 the sale of industrial fireworks in the Mountain State, but did not allow for their use. The city of Wheeling has had an ordinance on the books for years that bans the use of pyrotechnics that own a, “combustible or explosive composition, or any substance or combination of substances, or article prepared for the purpose of producing a visible or an audible effect by combustion, explosion, deflagration or detonation.”
Didn’t seem to matter.
“I know we put a lot of information out to the public before the Fourth of July about state laws, city ordinances, and fireworks, but it was obvious that evening that a lot of people didn’t hear it, see it, or they didn’t care, but the dispatchers received a lot of calls from all over the city that evening,” Stahl said. “That’s why I’m sometimes puzzled about where people get their news because I am utilizing as many avenues I possibly can.
“I guess it’s still a work in progress,” he said with a laugh. “But I do learn something every day, so maybe the day will come when I’m not puzzled about it anymore.”
(Photos provided by Philip Stahl)