Community relations in the fire service: whose job is that? Most folks you ask would probably be quick to answer, “The fire prevention and education division” or “The PIO.”
While these are certainly integral parts of establishing and maintaining a positive relationship with the community, the real answer is much larger than just those two sections.
As clichéd as it sounds, building good community relations is up to all of us. Most importantly, those who interface with the community on a daily basis, which includes field staff and their company officers.
To recruit and retain quality members to your department, paid and volunteer alike, you must maintain good relations with the public you serve. Who wants to work for an organization the public doesn’t trust because of its image in the community? No one!
Similarly, no one want to donate their time and efforts to a department the community doesn’t believe adds value. Sometimes that perceived lack of trust or value is simply a lack of awareness of what the organization stands for and does on a daily basis.
The bottom line is that it’s our responsibility—from the chief to the newest recruit—to communicate the department’ value to members of our community.
No matter how many calls we run on a daily basis, we still have actual face-to-face contact with a very small percentage of those we serve. We must take every opportunity to make a positive impression every time we’re in the public’s view, on call or otherwise.
For example, take going to the grocery store for food for the shift. Instead of every member of the crew going inside and shopping, what if the company officer stays with the truck (not in the truck) and says hello to other shoppers and lets their kids look at the truck and its equipment? Explain why they see us at the store and how meals on shift really work.
This isn’t really a big deal, but think of the relationships it would build with the community.
I work for a fairly large combination department that values the perception the public has of us. Some of the things department members have done recently improve and maintain that community presence:
- Offering Breakfasts and BBQs – This past weekend one volunteer fire district hosted a breakfast and another a BBQ within their communities. Sure, they asked for donations, but the real reason for the events were to show the communities they serve the pride they have in their departments and maybe attract a few new members. A few hundred community members attend those events, and as I walked around talking to them, it was obvious to me how they felt about their fire department. These events offered the communities ownership of the department and a better understanding of how we do what we do.
- Serving in the Community – The IAFF local (4366) has in the past month taught CPR at a department store to anyone interested, helped the department run a professional-recruiting campaign on social media, participated in a 9/11 stair climb, collected for MDA and helped a local animal shelter with pet adoption clinics.
There’s always more to do and other ways to build relationships with our community. But the bottom line to consider is whether we’re worried about what the public thinks of our department. Not as long as these folks keep doing what they’re doing.