The speed at which information moves isn’t slowing down any time soon; in fact, it’s getting faster. This makes it more important than ever to lead the charge in shaping the public perception of your department before someone else does it for you.
In 1893, the lead storytelling perpetrator was yellow journalism, where newspapers would write sensational articles that usually appeared in the press before a fire chief even knew the report had been printed and distributed. This created serious political difficulties and public misunderstandings for fire chiefs and their departments. Getting out in front of these stories became critically important.
With that in mind, through 1924-1926, the IAFC partnered with Louis B. Mayer of MGM to produce full-length films that became road shows in local theatres. Two films were produced, The Passing of the Horses and The Fire Brigade. A portion of the ticket sales were directed to the IAFC. Aside from added financial resources the industry gained, the movies helped steer the public image of emergency-service professionals in a more positive direction, showing off the importance of building safety and fire prevention.
When friendlier representatives for fire safety were needed, other fire service organizations created Smokey Bear (1944) and Sparky the Fire Safety Dog (1951); they galvanized the fire service community and led a successful charge in educating the public about the importance of wildland and home fire prevention and the public’s active role in prevention efforts.
Just this year, the IAFC Image Task Force published Taking Responsibility for a Positive Public Perception, a toolkit aimed at putting a helpful resource in the hands of emergency responders to positively shape public perception.
The industry hasn't always been able to set up Google alerts about negative stories, but we took the initiative to stay in front of the fire and emergency service story.
Email changed the speed with which a message could be passed: from a few days to a few minutes. Social media has turned those few minutes into a few seconds. It’s almost impossible to predict what’s next, short of planting chips in our brain.
But what’s most important is that we continue to stay out in front of how the industry is perceived by the public. Telling our own story will continue to serve emergency responders and the public it protects much better than allowing someone else to do it for us.