Recently I had an opportunity to speak candidly with a commissioner from another district about the importance of open communication with local government officials, the public and our personnel. I was stunned when he responded that it's not our job to provide feedback to the public.
My question then was whose responsibility is it if not ours?
I think the answer still reigns in a number of older fire stations around the country: "100 years of tradition unimpeded by progress." In the old days, that attitude was generally accepted; in the 21st Century, the public expects more and we should be providing more.
Here's another recent example. My daughter, who lives out of state, went to the local fire department to have a child safety seat installed before she brought home her newborn baby. Amazingly, she was told they don't do car seats nor do they provide EMS services to their community. This was a southern state and probably not much different from many fire departments in the country.
My department is the only internationally accredited fire department in the entire state of New York. There are those who ask why should a department become accredited?
Why shovel out snow-covered hydrants, why conduct public CPR training, why conduct weekly blood pressure screenings at a local mall and monthly screenings at senior-citizen community homes?
Why give teddy bears to children who are victims of fires or accidents? Why participate in the annual boot drive for MDA or host a NFFF Golf Tournament for eight years?
Why does a department with only 60 people do any of this?
The answer is simple: it provides great public exposure and the accreditation process provides validation of our programs and operations. In addition, it requires commitment and belief in the mission by those carrying out the various functions.
In 2007, we considered building a third station, which would include hiring additional people and buying a new engine. Most departments only do what's required of them by providing public notices and hearings. As the chief, I personally went door to door and sent out reminder cards to more than a 1,000 residents in the area, reminding them of the upcoming vote on the station. Needless to say, the station, personnel and new engine all passed with no resistance.
These days, social media can play a large part in getting our message out. An electronic signboard can keep the public informed on upcoming events. A webpage that is kept current is a valuable tool that many people will look at, either out of curiosity or when looking for specific information.
An annual open house at all stations can help you get closer to your community members. Showing up at community events, either invited or not, shows the public you care. Going to city council meetings, town board meetings or village board meetings allows you to interact with the public and the politicians.
It's important to remember that a local fire department—be it volunteer, combination or career—is part of a community's fabric and, as my department has proven, the more the public sees you and embraces your mission, the less problems you'll have in selling the needs of your organization.
Community relations have never been more important to the fire service than they are right now in the 21st century. Embrace your community members year round and they'll support you when you need them.