After 9/11, America's firefighters were recognized as part of our first line of defense in the war on domestic terrorism. Following the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., the Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire and Rescue station become a symbol of shelter and strength.
We respond despite being ambushed by gunfire, as happened in Webster, N.Y., where Lt. Mike Chiappernini and Firefighter Tomasz Kacowka were killed, or being held hostage in Suwanee, Ga.
Suddenly, but not surprisingly, on April 15, first responders were again on the front line, responding to the Boston Marathon bombings. Those in emergency services had been waiting for the when, not if.
We're at a crossroads in the fire service, continuing in our duty while being challenged by some negative public sentiment brought on by the economy. In some places, even our need is questioned: Why do we need so many firefighters? We don't have many fires! I've never had a fire at my house!
The money isn't there and people are willing to gamble instead of paying more. Given that attitude, it's easy to hide behind apparatus doors, developing an us-versus-them mentality.
Our firehouses are vulnerable to threats, and security is definitely an issue. The FBI and DHS have issued warnings about threats that target first responders as well as about those looking to steal PPE or emergency vehicles. That prompted us to close and lock doors, putting up a barrier between those we serve and us, letting it down only when we have to.
We need to find a safe balance. Firefighters from departments with strict closed-door policies often hear, "I didn't know we had people there!"
Many in our communities don't understand how the fire service works. Stations that look closed are thought of having thought on-duty crews ready to respond. Some doors have become permanently shut, but the need to invite the public in has never been more critical.
Fire departments have fewer, if any, open houses, spaghetti dinners and bingo games. Firefighters sitting on the front bumper may give the public a bad impression, but completely prohibiting the practice puts up another roadblock between the public and us.
How often have we've gotten to know people by simply being available to talk to? Open apparatus doors become an invitation to community members to look at the equipment and get to know their firefighters. People are more likely to stop and ask for assistance. Stations are often in the heart of our communities, and open doors are a way of saying, "We're neighbors, let us help."
We become Nate and Grayce and Mike—not just faces but friends.
It gives us the opportunity to teach about what we do, how we do it and what we need to do it with. Friends are more likely to understand the need for new apparatus, a new station and job benefits than the uneducated stranger is.
Chief Brunacini reminds us that Mr. and Mrs. Smith paid for your fire station. It belongs to them as much as it belongs to you, so let them use it.
Jurisdictions are making their fire stations multipurpose buildings with community centers, public meeting rooms and emergency shelters. On April 13, the City of Maderia Beach, Fla., approved funding of a combined city hall, fire station and multipurpose recreation building. Other cities and towns, such as Westgate, Iowa, have taken a similar approach.
Alexandria, Va., has constructed a station that may become a blueprint for others; their four-bay station is located in a five-story building with apartments, retail stores and underground parking. Talk about being neighbors!
Others are constructing and combining fire station and health clinics to provide easier access to healthcare. New fire stations are setting examples through green and alternate energy initiatives. Designing multipurpose facilities invites the public to use buildings they paid for. Given a sense of usefulness, our stations are no longer just "Taj Mahals" the taxpayers have funded for firefighters; they're the neighbors' home next door.
Perception becomes reality; the first step is to simply open our doors and become neighbors, not just tenants, and let people know that we're here. Let's do what Astronaut David Bowman wanted in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. "Open the pod bay doors, HAL."