By Michael Capoziello
Today’s fire service, especially the volunteer fire service, is under a lot of scrutiny from the public at large. Maintaining a healthy, trusting, transparent relationship with the communities you serve should be one of the top priorities of any Chief Officer, Board of Fire Commissioners, Trustees or whoever has a say in what direction your organization is heading in.
What is your relationship with your community? Do they trust you with their tax dollars? Have you had your organization’s name in the news lately in a negative way?
Lose the trust of the communities you serve, and the road ahead will be a very rocky one. Building community support, trust and credibility takes time, especially if it has been damaged. But, it’s never too late to begin to rebuild that trust. You do not need a professional public relations team behind you to create positive attention and conversation about your organization. Let’s look at five simple ideas for positive publicity and relations between a fire department and the community in which your deeds and acts will speak for themselves.
1) Open your doors to the public more often.
Back in the day, the local firehouse was very much the center of activity for many a community. For some communities this is still the case, however, for many, it is not.
Host an open house a few times a year. Especially during October, Fire Prevention Month, this is a great way to show the community “your home” and what you are about. Display the apparatus and hold small demonstrations on the various tools and equipment you use. Hosting an open house recruitment drive such as the “RecruitNY” program each April, will also show the community what you’re about. Have members on hand to explain their individual journeys in getting to this point in their lives. Display videos and photographs of certain individuals and their stories as well as your department in action at fires and other emergencies.
During these events, you should give away smoke detectors or carbon monoxide detectors. Try and get a local business or a “big box” store (Home Depot, Lowes, Wal-Mart) to help sponsor such a giveaway. Most businesses will donate to the cause and promote their “brand” when it comes to fire prevention activities as they are always seeking positive press as well.
Hosting public CPR classes, blood pressure checks and blood drives is another great way to open your doors to the public.
Encourage your members to sign up to the bone marrow and stem cell donor registry list. The FDNY has been the No. 1 group of bone marrow and stem cell donors for the New York Blood Center for decades now. Having your organization known for something similar is a great feel-good story, plus along the way you could save someone’s life.
2) Create ways to reach the community via media.
My department has been active with the various newspapers that have served our community since the 1930s. The various incarnations of the newspaper column have covered fire prevention tips as well as various happenings of the department during the month.
Creating a website or social media pages such as an official Facebook page or Twitter account can reach a lot of people in a very fast and positive way. Your website can be as elaborate as showing your alarms in real time with links to actual radio transmissions or as simple as listing basic information about your department.
A website is also another way to promote recruitment for your department. Information on how to join can be displayed with a downloadable application form. Your web address can also be displayed on your department’s apparatus for more exposure.
3) After-the-fire care.
How we conduct ourselves and show our professionalism on the fireground is imperative in creating good relations with the public, but how are we doing when the fire is out? How are we doing at providing the “customer” with the best possible interaction?
Consider assigning someone to explain to the family what is going on and what they can expect next. Ensure that you will be able to contact the Red Cross or other agencies in helping families deal with the aftermath a fire can cause.
If you cannot spare a body to work with the family/owner, consider creating an information packet that can be distributed. The New York State Fire Chiefs Association and FEMA publish booklets called After the Fire. The booklet explains “what’s next” for the homeowner.
You can package this booklet along with information on how to obtain a fire report or other documents from your department. Enclosing a pen and small notepad is also helpful as many times the homeowner does not even have a pen and paper to write on after a fire. This is simple stuff which can make a lasting impression on folks going through one of the worst times of their lives.
4) Adopt-a-hydrant program.
These programs have been around for years, encouraging individuals and groups (Boy Scouts, civic associations) to care for a hydrant that may be located near their residence or organization. This is particularly important in regions where snowfall can bury a hydrant.
The person or organization who adopts a hydrant would be agreeing to keep hydrants clear of snow or even growing brush in the spring and summer. They would also help in reporting any damaged or blocked hydrants throughout the year.
Individuals partaking in this program can be awarded T-shirts, certificates, stickers or magnets to display showing they have “adopted a hydrant.” This may be particularly attractive to businesses which can display such recognition inside their store windows. An “honor roll” of names can also be listed on a department website if agreeable. Adopt-a-hydrant information can be mailed out to your residents or the information can be displayed on a department website year round.
5) Carry pet oxygen masks.
We have all seen photos of firefighters in the process of administrating oxygen to “rescued” animals on the fireground. This is a fantastic public relations moment when these occasions happen.
However, in most cases, firefighters are using their firefighting SCBA facepiece to administer the air. For a small investment, you can purchase specially designed O2 kits for dogs, cats, ferrets, rabbits, guinea pigs and birds!
These kits can be purchased by your department directly or can be sponsored by individuals or businesses within your community. Do you have a local animal hospital in town? Maybe they would like to get on board and sponsor the purchase of such kits. This is a great public relations opportunity for all parties involved.
As you can see, there are many ways to help promote your department’s image to the communities you serve. Most of these ideas also help your departments to become better providers as well as raising awareness in specific areas.
What ideas do you have? Don’t be afraid to try something new. A little positive press today will go a long way tomorrow.