By Scott Joerger
The first interview came from the newspaper. A reporter and a photographer came to the firehouse. It seemed appropriate to conduct the interview off the property so there would be no confusion that we were not on duty and not acting on behalf of the fire department or city. The day proved to be busy for the engine company and the firefighters on duty. While conducting the interview, they responded to an alarm, which was great for action shots. The photographer caught a picture of the engine backing into quarters; a large banner with the message, “DON’T CLOSE OUR FIREHOUSE” on the building across the street was in the background. It made the front page of the local section. The questions the reporter asked were things like, “What are you all doing here today?” and “How is it going?” I thought I explained our purpose correctly, but that is not how it was reported.
“How is it going?” was a difficult question. Most of the people we reached, from residences and businesses, were very supportive and did not want to see the engine eliminated. Their voice and concerns had to be brought to the attention of the mayor. They needed to get to the neighborhood meeting, which was two weeks away. Most said they would attend and voice their objections. So to answer the reporter’s question, it was “going good,” but time would tell. After working in this neighborhood for years, I knew that most of the people we reached would not show up. For example, in one housing project we hit, we did not find a single resident who spoke or understood English. Spanish would not have been a problem, but the residents here were from Nepal, I think. We handed out 60 flyers there, and I am quite sure none of the residents even knew what 911 was.
We faced many other unique challenges. We planned on distributing 4,000 flyers and handing out 500 a day. It would be “going good” if just 400 citizens from the community showed up to voice their opinion. That would be the goal. I answered the reporter’s question by saying that the neighborhood support was really positive. Unfortunately, the written story portrayed our actions as a protest, which was not what we intended. We were not protesting; we were handing out informational flyers and trying to show the positive impact our engine had on the neighborhood to residents and businesses owners.
Another interview was done with a local TV station. It became very important to get the message right, and to not let the reporter leave without hearing our message. Before the camera started to shoot, I spoke to the camera man and the reporter. I explained to them how I wanted the story to be portrayed positively and that we were not protesting. They did not seem too interested and just wanted to conduct an interview. The reporter asked where there was a good spot to do this. Just across and down the street from the firehouse was a location that really fit the message we wanted to portray. In one single location, the camera could get a three-story multiple dwelling, next door to an occupied single-family house, next door to a burned-out double-family house, next door to a boarded-up, dilapidated house. This location showed the problem with this neighborhood and why we are needed.
To get to the location, we had to cross the street and pass by a barber shop with a couple of young men standing out front. These guys are out there all the time, wearing hooded sweatshirts, keeping their hands in their pockets except to shake hands with some people who walk by and some people who stop for a second in their cars. The police don’t seem to have much of an impact to get them off the corner. They don’t bother us, and walking past them did not seem to be a problem to me. However, it was a problem for the reporter, at first. Before crossing the street, he asked me why I don’t call for police attention here. I told him that the police know this corner is a problem and that even when they do get them off the streets, within a few days, a new bunch moves in. We crossed the street and walked past them. A young man recognized the reporter and asked what was going on. The reporter filled him in on the news, and the young man said that there was no way they should close this firehouse. The reporter then asked him to do an “on-camera interview,” and the young man declined, saying there was “no way” he could be on TV. He ran off, and the reporter gave me a confident smile and said, “See what effect a little attention has on the drug problem?”
We continued to the location I had in mind. The reporter did a great job of portraying our message based on this location. When he asked me questions, I had one comment that I wanted to get out and made sure to get that into an answer to his questions. Other questions I intentionally did not answer well in the hope that the important comment would make the story and the message would be positive. It did. The comment was, “I know the mayor and the fire chief have tough decisions to make with this budget deficit, but we would like to see the people in this community attend the neighborhood meeting and let the mayor know that cuts to the fire department are unacceptable.” The story was positive and went the way we intended–one experience out of two so far.
SCOTT JOERGER is a 28-year veteran of the fire service and a former volunteer chief of the Pittsford Fire Department. He has worked as a wildland firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon. He has an associate degree in fire protection and a bachelor’s degree in management.