Positive Public Perception in the Fire Service

A firefighter proceeds into a smoky compartment.

(Photo by Tony Greco)

By Michael DeStefano

As firefighters, we are public servants. We typically receive our funding from the taxpayers’ pockets to provide efficient fire protection and, many times, emergency medical care. The citizens of our community put a very high level of trust into those that are chosen to represent the municipality in this highly trained profession. To lose this trust is to diminish the very purpose of the fire service–to help those in need.

As an executive officer in a fire department, the media can either be a great asset or an even greater detriment. Anybody who has spent time in the fire service knows that when we make a great stop at a fire or save the fluffy white puppy from a burning house, we make the news on one or two channels. However, if a firefighter is arrested for a DUI or a video is released on the Internet of a firefighter behaving poorly, we will see the story on eight news channels and six newspapers, and there will be 10 million views on Internet social media sites. Why is this? Mass media news agencies are businesses that need to make money to survive. If the story creates viewer interest, advertisers will spend money. It is an unfortunate fact of our current culture that we must understand and work with.

Every firefighter is taught in their respective fire academy that there are a thousand ways to mitigate an emergency. Similarly, every tool in an auto garage has a function, a time and a place where said tool is the most effective for a specific job. Every specialized class that a firefighter takes, every method of completing tasks that we train…all these are metaphorical tools that we store in our mental toolbox. As firefighters promote to administrative positions, there is no reason why this toolbox concept needs to be put in storage along with the chief’s bunker gear. Positive public perception is a very powerful and broad tool in the fire administrator’s toolbox.

How the public perceives its local fire service can directly affect budgeting. A very positive view of the department may convince voters to view public safety as a vital part of their community and elect political leaders that believe the same. Additionally, as noted above, the fire service is about helping others in their time of need. The more the public knows about the services we provide, the more likely they are going to use those services in the future. In positive economic environments, the likelihood of new equipment and increased staff is higher. Conversely, in a negative economic environment, the fire department will be the last on the chopping block for budget cuts. Having the public on our side is probably the greatest asset that a department can have.

So how do we create and continue this positive public perception? Use this simple five-step program to tip the scales of how we are viewed in a favorable way.

The first step is to create a solid foundation. Just like building a house, the greatest weight is held by the foundation. The fire department standard operating procedures (SOPs) and standard operating guidelines (SOGs) are the basis of this foundation. If we create a wonderful public image project that does not have the proper SOPs and SOGs to support the image, than it will inevitably collapse and leave the department viewed worse than before the project began. A solid set of operational procedures for how we operate on calls is important. If your department does not already have these in place, establishing these SOGs is critical. Having set guidelines on how fire companies operate on calls will create a protective barrier for the department when things go wrong. Additionally, these SOGs will create consistency on emergency calls. Consistent approaches to a specific hazard will yield consistent results. Once guidelines for how to operate on scene are established, specific guidelines on how we operate away from the scene need be created. These off-call SOPs/SOGs range from behavior in the station, how public education is handled by crews, uniform/grooming guidelines, and social media use. Firefighters are a proud group of individuals and enjoy sharing their adventures with friends and family via social media. Although this can be great for morale, it can be destructive for a department. If a firefighter posts pictures taken at a specific emergency call, the public may view this as an invasion of privacy. Furthermore, these very photos and videos may reveal potential violations in SOPs/SOGs on scene, which could lead to legal vulnerability.  Strong guidelines to prevent freelance photography from the department will prevent these possibilities. A simple way to allow our firefighters to remain proud of their profession while protecting the department is to task the company officer with approving photos and videos prior to the firefighters posting on social media.

Now that the foundation of the public policy improvement plan has been established, we move on to step two. Establish a dedicated public information officer (PIO). These position can be an extra task added to an already in place position such as a battalion chief or assistant chief, or a standalone position for larger departments that require more time to be spent on releasing information to the public. Whoever is chosen for the position needs to receive formal training in the area of PIO. Public speaking, college-level English, and grammar classes as well as journalism classes are all great places to start. Many colleges and states offer specific PIO certifications. This PIO will be responsible for the release of all information, both voluntary and requested. Requested information is typically in the form of press releases about specific events that the local news agencies are reporting about. Voluntary releases are how we help to sway public perception of our agency.

Voluntary release of information brings us into the third step: use your PIO. The PIO position is a very powerful tool. It allows the department to communicate with large numbers of our customers efficiently. The PIO should have all local media outlets (news agencies, magazines, newspapers, etc.) on speed dial. Additionally, the popularity of social media has created a direct to consumer approach for a PIO to communicate with the public. Twitter accounts, Facebook, LinkedIn, and the like are all great avenues to portray a dedicated professional department. Posts on social media should be meaningful, educational, and consistent. Examples of what to post are as follows:

  • A station donates blood together at local blood bank
  • Firefighter participates in charity fund raiser
  • New project to promote use of smoke detectors
  • Upcoming community classes such as CPR, first aid, Etc.
  • Purchase of new equipment to help citizens
  • Upcoming station open houses and past open houses

The sky is the limit when it comes to positive information releases that help build the positive perception within the public. Remember, these releases of information can help our citizens understand our function in the community better. Letting the public know that they can stop by a station for blood pressure checks or the level of emergency medical care that is provided in the back of an ambulance can be a real eye-opener to a general public that might still regard firefighters as the guys that hang out at the station playing checkers.

Bragging is the fourth step. In reality, this is an extension of the third step. Once again, it constitutes the voluntary release of information. The topic of the information is your human resource, the firefighters. This information should be both internal and external. This means release information to the department about good deeds and good calls, i.e. Firefighter Smith did a great job at blocking the scene with his apparatus at the big interstate traffic accident, or Paramedic Jones was quick to note the acute myocardial infarction while on a routine chest pain call, which resulted in saving the patient’s life. This kind of press release helps build morale among the crews as well as giving a little bit of an incentive to perform above and beyond while operating on emergency calls. This very same approach is used for external or public releases of information as well. Obviously, certain aspects of calls cannot be released without violating the privacy and trust of our customers. With that said, we can certainly brag about the professional qualifications of our employees: Congrats to Firefighter Smith for completing his Bachelors degree in Emergency Management with a GPA of 3.6; he joins 22 others within Random City Fire Rescue who hold a Bachelors degree. This is an example of how the PIO has not only recognized a firefighter for an achievement but additionally was able to inform the public of the educational level of many of their local firefighters. Like most professions, recognition is a vital component to satisfaction in an individual’s company.

The fifth and final step in the program, as should be the case with every program we undertake, is evaluation. Take time to step back and view what has been achieved. Is the public perception of the department better than before the program began? Has the department’s ability to impact the community increased? Have the firefighters reacted favorably by performing at a higher performance level and achieved additional certifications and degrees? Some of these answers will be highly subjective whereas others will be objective. A graphic of how many pub-eds the department was invited to or how many station tours were performed can help analyze the efficacy of program. Anonymous surveys from the crews and satisfaction surveys from our citizens may be used to provide a basis of comparison for efficiency of the program from a subjective view. With evaluation, the administrator can customize the program to meet the needs of his or her community and department. What works and is popular in Florida may be drastically different than in Nevada. Evaluation should be a recurring process that is completed annually to allow changes time to take effect and be noticed while still allowing for changes that parallel current community and department trends.

We are how we are perceived. The fire service is no exception to this. Using a well-thought-out, systematic approach to improving the public perception of ones department can drastically change how a department operates for the better. The five-step program noted above is one simple approach to taking on this complex project and breaking it into smaller more manageable tasks. The release of favorable information to the public is another tool in the administrative toolbox to help us improve the management and growth of the fire service.

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Michael DeStefanoMichael DeStefano is a lieutenant and currently assigned to the training division with Brevard County (FL) Fire Rescue. He began his career in 2004 at a small three-station paid department in Winter Springs, Florida, as a firefighter/EMT-B. In 2005, he moved to Brevard County, taking on the role of firefighter/paramedic in 2006. He has an associate’s degree from Eastern Florida State College in fire science and a bachelor’s degree from Barry University in public administration.

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