Just about anywhere you go, fire departments find themselves under increasing public scrutiny as economic pressures remain high or even increase. The public domain and news media fill up with questions about fire department costs, firefighter benefits and more. Few people are prepared for such increased scrutiny.
Perhaps we have fail to appreciate how many in our communities have been suffering from layoffs, long-term unemployment, foreclosures, loss of retirement benefits and accumulated heavy consumer debt, and we haven't recognize that they don't understand what appear to them to be excesses inside our fire houses during difficult times.
Had we as the fire service done a better job addressing these seemingly discrepancies over the past few years, we may have been able to mitigate the damage to the fire service's public image.
The good news is that fire chiefs and chief officers can reinforce—and even rebuild if needed—a positive perception of their departments in the eyes of the public.
The first step is to acknowledge that the fire and emergency service bears some responsibility for its public image, and we are solely responsible for improving it.
The second step is to understand that there are things affecting public perception we can't control and things we can. Things out of our control are what others say, what others do, what others think, economic conditions, irresponsible acts by others and politics.
However, there are many important things completely in our control: our actions, our emotions, our stories and facts, our relationships, our level of responsibility and our professionalism, ethic and morals.
If we're effective communicators and leaders, we'll have a positive influence on those around us—our staffs and those in our communities—despite having little direct control. We should lead not only in our departments, but in our communities as well. We must come to the table and engage in the discussions of important community matters even if they don't directly relate to local fire service operations.
Taking Responsibility for a Positive Public Perception (PDF) not only discusses these issues, but also offers common-sense solutions. It's focused on action, not emotion. It's about taking responsibility by focusing on our own actions and demonstrating leadership within our departments and in our communities.
The guide recommends 10 actions we can take to build and repair our departments' reputation in the public's eyes:
- 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 media.
- Proactively demonstrate value to the community.
- Develop a proactive social-media policy.
- Focus on labor-management relationships.
- Listen to your community and department members.
By taking these steps and then sharing what we've learned, we can continue to build the tools and resources to improve our collective image and maintain the level of trust we have enjoyed for generations.