When Perception Is Reality, Image Is Everything

Over the course of the past several years, the fire service has been subject to increasing scrutiny. Economic pressures, evolving communication technologies and changing social norms contribute to an environment where the many fire departments find themselves struggling to maintain a positive image.

In response to this trend, the IAFC issued Taking Responsibility for a Positive Public Perception (PDF), a resource that empowers fire-department officers and others to address the issues that threaten to erode the public trust in the fire and emergency service.

“The task force explains the reasons why this is a complex issue to resolve. Dramatic cultural, educational, socio-economic and demographic changes affect how we maintain a positive image and how the public perceives it,” said Ben May, contributing editor to Firehouse.com in a recent blog posting about the IAFC resource. “But one constant rings true: our behavior creates perception in every public setting. And perception is reality.”

Taking Responsibility for a Positive Public Perception discusses the recent image challenges of fire departments and the spiral effect created by increased scrutiny and defensive postures.

Cultural change has played a major role in image problems as well, but as the document describes, it can also play a major role in the solution. Embracing culture change as a positive evolution of the fire service’s tradition (rather than an opposing force) positions the fire and emergency service to improve its image. Taking Responsibility specifically addressed the double-edge sword presented by post-incident achievements, educational expectations, social media, generational differences and increasing EMS service.

Fire chiefs and chief officers have the ability to strengthen a positive public perception, but the first step is to acknowledge that the fire and emergency service bears some responsibility for the current environment and are solely responsible for improving the situation.

Taking Responsibility outlines 10 action items to help get you there.

  • Assume cultural leadership.
  • Discuss department image and community expectations.
  • Review department policies.
  • Adopt best business practices.
  • Train and listen to future leaders.
  • Develop relationships with the medias.
  • Proactively demonstrate value to the community.
  • Develop a proactive social-media policy.
  • Focus on labor-management.
  • Listen to your community and department members.

The document also offers a number of appendices that offer practical solutions for helping achieve your goals, such as tips on preparing for budget discussions and community meetings, strategies for working with elected officials and the benefits of community surveys.

By taking action and sharing what we’ve learned, we can all continue to build the tools and resources to improve our collective image and maintain the level of trust the fire and emergency service has enjoyed for generations.

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