If Everything Is Important, Nothing Is

Most of us remember a tragic house fire in Stamford, Conn., on Christmas Day 2011. The fire claimed the lives of three little girls and their grandparents.

The media attention was considerable and it seemed every fire agency and industry took the opportunity to get a message out: smoke alarms/detectors, construction permits, fireplace safety, ember disposal, fire sprinklers, escape plans and more.

I remember reading the public comments following several reports and there were even more positions and opinions than messages. No doubt there was public attention and emotion generated with the words "fire, death, children, grandparents…," but the rest of the story?

"Blah, blah, blah."

How different might it have been if there was a single message repeated by every fire service entity? Yes, they were all true and important, at least to us. But if those with credibility repeated a single mantra, hundreds—maybe thousands—might have associated such a tragic fire with the need for smoke alarms or any other single message.

Instead, the multiple messages most likely came through as noise, without the potential to change behavior and save lives.

Many of us do the same within our own departments and in our communities. As fire service professionals, we do the investigation, write the report, analyze the data and identify the fire problem. We then develop or adopt campaigns and programs to mitigate those problems and risks.

As a result, we end up with multiple messages regarding fire risks and mitigations. But how strategic are we at delivering those programs and messages? Many are plastered on pamphlets that sit in racks at our facilities, are distributed at the various events we attend and are available on our websites.

The public is bombarded with messages; they become overloaded with information and end up hearing nothing but the noise. And nothing changes.

It's not an issue isolated to external messaging. The same happens within our departments. There's always so much to get done that we often develop multiple goals, sometimes for each section or bureau within the department. We publish them, push them out to all staff and declare their importance. We then expect everyone to get behind those goals and get 'em done.

At the end of the year, we're left wondering why not much is accomplished or different.

As we move into Fire Prevention Week and into the planning process for what needs to be accomplished in 2015, remember the old adage, "If everything is important, nothing is."

Rather than focusing on all the behaviors and things that need to change to improve community safety, focus on the most important one, maybe two, at a time. Take time to develop the message around the goal or program so it is sharp and clear but simple.

When our communication is to the point, relevant, worthwhile and compelling, it moves the listener or reader to action. We can't expect our department members, let alone the public, to receive and process multiple messages in a manner that results in change.

Focus in on what is most important for that time or situation and work to develop the message that will help everyone see the importance and become part of the change.

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