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Executive Officer Leadership: Maintaining Relevance in Communities

What do relationships reflect about an elected or appointed official or a government entity? Many times, elected and appointed officials enter a position with their own agenda, not considering the impact of this agenda on their relationship with the community they serve. Community relationships are of the utmost importance for the success of an organization or department that depends on the community to pass policies, procedures and budgets.

It’s so important to establish strong, positive relations between the fire service and the community.

From my many years and many positions—both elected and appointed, career and volunteer—in the fire service, I can say I have seen the attitude of community members. I understand how the perception of the fire and emergency service is affected by the community’s perception of the chief and his members.

For years, the fire and emergency service was and still is considered to be, for the most part, an honorable profession. It’s important to keep in mind that the decisions made and the behavior demonstrated on a day-to-day basis contributes to the public’s constantly changing perception of the profession.

At any time, the perception of a department can go from good to bad and back to good again. The relationship you establish with your community can remain supportive and positive with self-reflection, honesty, transparent communication, collaboration and professionalism.

At no time, should it be a finger-pointing game. People appreciate those who take responsibility for their actions—good, bad or indifferent.

When we’re in the business of serving, customer service is key. What is good customer service? What keeps you going back to a location, be it a retail store, restaurant, or mechanic? It’s the relationship you built with that person or establishment.

What was the factor in creating that relationship: trust, honesty, positivity and professionalism? We need to keep and reflect on all of these as we serve our communities. Without these, a negative perception of dishonesty and deceit may build up, which you don’t want to have as you work toward passing annual budgets or a referendum for new equipment or facilities.

Everything we do in the fire and emergency service is for the community we serve. Involvement in the community is one of the easiest ways to develop a positive relationship. Participating in or hosting community events can create a visible presence that demonstrates to the community you’re invested in the area you serve.

A positive relationship with local media is another tool that can help you maintain positive community relationships. Media can play a vital role in community education and public relations. If the media considers you a trusted source of information, this translates to you being a trusted source of information for the public as well.

Members of the community will be more supportive when they believe your efforts are aligned to the values of the community. Community values will vary, so to ensure continued community support identify those values, determine alignment and awareness and then assess.

Lastly, and most importantly, listen. You must listen to and understand what’s truly being said. Listen with your ears, your mind and your gut. This way you can better understand your community’s needs and fears and empathize with those feelings.

Taking Responsibility for a Positive Public Perception. IAFC Fire and Emergency Service Image Task Force, February 2013.

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