Are we hearing what our communities are saying or are we just listening without acknowledgement and continuing to do business the way it’s always been done? Are we providing forums for our citizens to be heard?
Hearing them, are we actually affecting our decision-making processes for service to our communities? Are the services we provide relevant to our community?
These are tough questions for department leaders, but in reality, the answers are very similar everywhere. We’re not doing a good job of hearing our community members and maintaining a relevant level of service based on what the community needs.
The fire service is being challenged to provide higher levels of service as well as varied levels of response to meet community needs and maintain a level of service that has become expected. We dismiss the knowledge of community members, and we fail to heed the power many members hold through their influence or the power in their vote.
Instead of communicating to the community and truly listening to members’ input, fire service leaders often desire validation for concepts they believe are important. Department leaders often want lip service to be paid to their ideas, but dismiss negative comments because they’ve already patented the manner their departments operate in.
This comes from our inability to listen because we consider ourselves the experts. Oftentimes, that’s the reality, but the smallest comment or suggestion can significantly impact the life of a member of our community. This comment or suggestion can come from anyone in our communities, but we have to listen to them and actually hear what they’re saying.
So the question remains: What do we do to build relationships and hear the members of our communities to ensure the service we’re providing is relevant?
It starts with our cultural mindset as fire service leaders and with actually hearing what’s being said, whether it’s during public comments at a council meeting or a comment on a survey—positive or negative.
The opportunity for gathering input is challenging for many of us because we don’t often put ourselves in front of a community forum. However, participating in these forums actually builds stronger relationships with the community; many simply want to state their opinion and feel like they matter within their communities.
One great way to do this is through strategic planning. Many strategic plans are developed without public comment, but it can be argued that community-driven plans are more comprehensive and make the bond between fire department and community even stronger because they address issues and service questions that citizens bring to the table.
Inviting community members, business leaders, developers and HOAs to participate in a strategic planning session doesn’t take much effort and goes a long way in relationship building and communication.
Attending civic meetings and even HOA meetings is another way to solicit input and provide opportunities for communication. Such meetings are comfortable and put individuals at ease so they’re more likely to speak openly and candidly. This is what you want—open and meaningful dialogue.
Many departments use surveys for community feedback, whether every 10th person receives a survey request or a mass survey is submitted to the community. However, this format often lacks a personal feel; potential responders may believe no one’s reading them, when in fact you are indeed reading the comments.
How about a patient visit at a hospital to see how the service really was? How about a phone call to victims of a fire to see how they’re doing, if there’s anything you can help with and to gain feedback on service?
These efforts go a long way in word of mouth approvals, which we all know is critical when voting and approvals roll around.
What are you doing to strengthen community relationships and to remain relevant in your community? Are you still doing things the way they’ve always been done?
It’s time for us to listen more and actually hear what our community is saying when it comes to improving service delivery. You may not like what’s being said, but you may need to hear it.
This isn’t a new concept, but it’s one we must remember and actually practice to make ourselves even better and to deliver the service the community expects and deserves.