Firefighters must show the public what their organizations are all about
By Tim Thompson
Photos by author
For most people in your community, public interaction with the members of your fire department will not come from your crews responding to an emergency they are having. The reflection of your department will be from interactions your members have at the grocery store, driving down the street in the fire engine, or through your department’s social media accounts. I hate to be blunt, but if that is all the outreach that you are having in the community, that is not enough.
As a fire service, we must make community outreach a year-round priority. It is easier for our counterparts in the police department to be seen in the paper after a robbery or shooting. A great deal of the work that we do is not in the press. When we work a code, respond to a vehicle accident with injuries, or mitigate any other number of instances, we just simply do not get the press that the police department does. Right, wrong, or indifferent, that is just the facts. This is where social media does come into play, but it can’t be all that we do.
At the Georgetown (KY) Fire Department I am proud to say that we do make community outreach a major priority. In fact, in our department we make it a focus to do outreach in our community any way we can. I must throw in a disclaimer: With COVID-19, we have had to make several adjustments to our activities and this virus has hindered our ability to do some of the outreach that we typically would do. Despite this impediment, there are many ways to interact with the community, and one of the best is to create your own citizen’s fire academy. We started this program so that we could educate our citizens in the day-to-day operations of the fire department and so they can understand what our job entails.
When most citizens think of their fire department, they literally think the only thing that we do is fight fires, and if they don’t see a story in the paper or a segment on the news about a house fire, they think we are not doing anything. Like all other departments, fighting fire is just a small part of what we do. It is imperative that we share with our community the vast number of hats that we wear and the emergency situations that we help to mitigate beyond structural firefighting. Our citizen’s fire academy is a 10-week program consisting of two-hour block classes on fire behavior, fire investigation, vehicle extrication, hazardous materials, apparatus orientation, etc. We also do a class to get the students CPR and first aid certified. This certification alone has saved one person in our community when an alumnus of ours had to assist a friend that was choking. We meet every week at the firehouse, and this allows for the citizens to be able to meet all three of our shifts. At the end of our program, we have the mayor, our chief, and other dignitaries at the graduation ceremony.
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It has been an amazing program and we have been able to reap major rewards from it since day one. This program has been a huge success and after our first class graduated, they immediately started an alumni association. With the creation of this 501c3 nonprofit organization, the alumni association fundraises and helps us tremendously with our fire education materials. Our budget for fire prevention items is quite small considering we have a student count of approximately 10,000 and our community is busting at the seams with new developments. The implementation of this association has raised a large amount of money to give us an opportunity to expand our fire prevention efforts for not only our students, but for our citizens across Georgetown.
Another great benefit that comes out of a citizen’s fire academy is that when you spend 10 weeks with a group of folks who are dedicated enough to come in week after week to learn our craft, they become true allies. When the city council starts questioning staffing numbers or if we ask the powers at be at city hall to purchase a new apparatus, these people understand why we have the need for a million-dollar fire truck or why we need a certain number of firefighters at a structure fire. It really is a great way to strengthen your case, and this compounds year after year as you have more classes and additional citizens involved.
Another way that we reach out to our community is by adding touch-a-truck events into our normal schedule to allow kids to come and meet the firefighters. This permits firefighters to mingle with the adults at these outings to gain interest in fire prevention and develop trust in the fire service.
We team up with our parks and recreation department each summer for a heroes day at our community water park where there are hundreds of kids. We run the children through a “hazardous materials” scenario where we spray them off in the decontamination line with water hoses. The kids love it, and this is a great way for us to show their parents and other adults present the equipment we have and the capabilities we have for assisting Georgetown.
For Fire Prevention Month in October, we join forces with the two other departments in our county and invite other departments from the region to participate in a fire prevention parade. We follow the parade with a safety day at the park where we invite emergency service agencies, tow trucks, the hospital, health department, and others to again interact with the kids and the community. The way we look at it, the citizens own all this equipment and pay our salaries, so they should get to know what we do. We also invite food trucks to be there to allow the families to get a full day of fun. During this event we have breakout sessions where we do a vehicle extrication, use burn cells to teach fire growth, and install car seats. Over the last few years this event has grown tremendously.
The American Red Cross is another asset to have for your department. The Georgetown Fire Department is a community partner with them, and we work diligently with them to provide smoke alarms for our citizens. This program is grant based and when we receive the alarms, our fire department installs the alarms within the homes. This gives us the chance to go over home fire safety with the public in their own setting, and it ensure that the alarms are installed properly. The American Red Cross is our go-to as well when it comes to finding a place to stay for citizens after structure fires. They are a great resource, and it is comforting for the family to know that they are going to have a place to stay as they see their house destroyed by fire.
Firefighters as public servants must understand that we are there for our communities in their time of need. We have an obligation to do that, and we do a truly amazing job every time the tones ring. It is the times in between calls that we need to understand the importance of being visible and seen in our communities. We need to set the narrative of what our organizations represent and the best way to establish our story is to tell it by being involved and engaged with the people we serve.
Tim Thompson is a 16 year veteran of the fire service. He is the assistant chief of prevention and fire marshal for the Georgetown (KY) Fire Department.