Safety & Health: The Need for Social Capital

The issues underlying the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City, as well as the subsequent protests that have occurred around the nation, create challenges not only for local communities and their law-enforcement agencies, but also for their emergency services as well.

This wicked problem often has its roots in the fact that emergency services don’t know their communities. This lack of knowledge could create a significant safety issue for emergency-service personnel.

Fire protection in the United States was birthed from a community-based interest in protecting not only lives, but also the property of neighbors. This interest spread from massive community-based volunteerism to combat the growing threat of fire as the country began to shed its agrarian roots for a more industrialized approach in cities.

In 1853, the city of Cincinnati decided to establish the first paid fire department; 160 years later, there are 2,477 paid fire departments in the United States, and 7,768 combination and 19,807 volunteer organizations have been established to protect the public from fires (Stein, 2014).

With the expansion of modern fire protection, the distance that often exists between emergency services and the communities they’re enlisted to serve has changed; in many organizations, few or even no members reside in their response communities.

Gone are the days of the firefighter coach, the captain mentor and even the assistant chief who participates in local events outside work hours. Many have no local connections to the business or the political infrastructure of the communities and are only interested when the organization needs something from the community, such as support on an effort that will ultimately result in an increase in the supporting entities’ or individual’s taxes.

These and other challenges, combined with the proliferation of work schedules that only put members of these organizations in communities less than a dozen times a month, create a lack of familiarity with the community that ultimately leaves the entire organization unaware of the communities’ social norms and practices.

Research indicates there are four general forms of capital in a community; the one form that is more important than the others and holds all the forms together is social capital—the investment made in human relationships (Grimsley, 2003).

Lack of social capital for an emergency-services provider could create increased hazards either directly or indirectly. Though many countries around the world have unrest, firefighters have often been viewed as neutral.

In my days in the Seattle Fire Department, I was aware of situations, particularly during the civil unrest around the World Trade Organization conference in 1999, where protesters fought with law enforcement but stopped to allow firefighters to rescue injured participants in the unrest.

Over a 30-year period starting in the late 1960s, a strong foundation of social capital was built through a variety of efforts—none as important as the personal interaction through the delivery of emergency medical service. That social capital allows EMS-based emergency services organizations to provide effective service on one hand while maintaining an effective relationship with the community on the other.

The greater the amount of social capital an emergency-service organization has, the better it can provide service to the community it serves and the more the organization’s members will be viewed as allies rather than adversaries to the community itself. These alliances can help emergency service organizations maintain neutrality in civil and other forms of unrest and therefore create a create level of safety for responders.

The immediate time spent developing a relationship with the community can be an investment in long-term safety.

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