Community engagement is a crucial component of success for a fire department. Whether we like it or not, the size of our funding share depends, at least partially, on community support. Indeed, if community support is the engine that drives the success of our fire departments, then community engagement is the fuel for that engine.
There are many ways we as fire service leaders can engage our communities. Involving the community in fire department events, participating in community happenings, offering educational opportunities, and a robust social media presence are all ways to solidify support.
Many in your community want a “peek behind the curtain” of their fire department. Why not satisfy the public’s curiosity and garner their support by inviting them into your world? Annual neighborhood open houses are a great way to do this, as community members get a chance to interact with “their” firefighters and develop a bond with “their” fire station. Consider involving your community in events such as new apparatus dedications, awards ceremonies, and fire station openings. Invite local leaders and media to participate in programs like FireOps 101 or similar “Firefighter-for-a-Day” programs to help them understand the realistic demands and needs of firefighting and EMS.
We can get involved in our communities by visibly raising money for worthwhile causes. Some departments have started doing events at public spaces like malls, or grocery stores where they take turns walking a Stairmaster in full PPE while soliciting pledges for charitable stair climbs. These events raise your community’s awareness of both the charity you’re supporting and their fire department.
Schools often appreciate having you present at sporting events and special days, such as the first day back to school or career fairs. Consider providing EMS standby at community fun runs or similar events so your community can see the value-added service you offer. Local senior living facilities regularly have activities that you can participate in. In my district, thanks to relationships with these facility’s activity directors, our crews have enjoyed participating in holiday celebrations, summer fairs, and other events where they’ve had positive interactions with older community members, their families, and caregivers.
We can foster community support by offering educational opportunities to our citizens.
Free CPR and Stop-the-Bleed classes are quite popular and a great way to let your citizens spend time one-on-one with their firefighters and ask questions about the services we provide. Our department also provides CPR training for local high school students - a requirement for their graduation - and a great way to engage students and faculty in conversations about fire and EMS in their community.
Finally, social media continues to be a growing and inexpensive way to engage our communities. Start with a proper policy and training, and then begin posting helpful, positive information. Social media allows us to provide timely incident information, answer questions, offer safety tips, advertise upcoming educational opportunities, and just become part of the community fabric.
Combining these small efforts toward community engagement can be a powerful way to fuel your engine of community support.
Tony C. Nielsen, MA, EFO, CFO, is a 35-year fire and EMS service veteran and the Fire Chief of Spokane County (Washington) Fire District 8. He has a master’s degree in Organizational Leadership and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program.