Fire and Life Safety: Community Relations

In today's environment of public suspicion, gaining and maintaining public consent to operate has become an ongoing top-management concern for most fire agencies and fire-prevention divisions. Community relationships are effectively maintained primarily through engagement with various publics and audiences within the community and your organization.

It’s often stated that community relations are "public relations at the local level" or that it’s "living right and telling about it." It has also been explained as "having and keeping friends in the community."

These statements get to the heart of community relations, but they’re oversimplified definitions when the vital mission of community relations is analyzed clearly.

Community relations is the function that evaluates public attitudes, identities the mission of an organization with the public interest and executes a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance.

Like public relations, community relations is something a fire department has, whether this fact is recognized or not. Unlike public relations, community relations is usually limited to the local area.

Fire departments give attention to their community relations for good reason. In the business world, organizations can exist and make a profit only as long as the public allows them to exist. The concept that free enterprise exists only to make a profit and is responsible only to its official family has diminished to a great degree.

In this world today, fire departments have fast given way to the realization that there’s also a responsibility to the community and that it’s advisable for the organization to meet this responsibility.

While there isn’t universal agreement on the specific benefits gained, businesses and fire departments conducting planned programs cite many tangible and intangible benefits from their community-relations efforts. Benefits from good community relations don’t come automatically.

In fact, many departments that are fine organizations and outstanding corporate citizens fail to realize the rewards their virtues entitle them to. They miss the payoff because they fail to tell about it.

Attitude surveys reveal that community neighbors traditionally know little about the fire departments in their towns and the important part each plays in their towns’ programs.

Like so many specific disciplines within the practice of public relations, the work done by community-relations practitioners and fire-prevention divisions is extremely complex. And yet, if you leaf through general public-relations texts, you won’t find much discussion about community relations.

It’s probably because community-relations activities emulate the work done by public-relations practitioners and fire-prevention staff on a regular basis (that is, carefully researched, targeted communications to achieve an organizational goal—community acceptance and support).

Consequently, the departments probably don’t consider it necessary to break out community-relations activities from the work that’s done every day or the fact that this could also be related to community risk reduction.

A fire department or agency can’t live in a vacuum. The community members and groups that populate its operating area are essential to its operation. Fire department members live in the community; they very likely grew up there. A successful fire department must continually establish understanding and support for all its services, and you only get this by applying principles of good community relations over time.

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