MARKETING YOUR FIRE DEPARTMENT THROUGH PUBLIC EDUCATION

BY MICHAEL ROBERTSON

The role of the fire service has changed dramatically in the past decade. It has become the “all hazards” response agency for cities and towns across our country and the world. The fire service’s strong efforts to promote smoke detectors, escape plans, and other fire safety programs have helped to reduce fire-related deaths for civilians. However, the fire service still does not do a good enough job of marketing its department in the community. Too many of our nation’s fire departments stay shut in behind solid apparatus bay doors with small tinted windows that isolate their firefighters from the people they serve.


Citizens Fire Academy participants (1) receive certification in CPR;

In many cities and towns, the general public knows little or nothing about the local fire department. Citizens’ only interaction with their firefighters may be at a holiday parade or at that rare occasion where they have to dial 911 to report a fire or medical emergency. We must increase public awareness about the fire department, our mission, and the services we provide. We can accomplish this through public education programs that go beyond the standard “Stop, Drop, and Roll” and “Test Your Smoke Detector” types of presentations.


(2) are trained in using portable fire extinguishers; and

Evesham (NJ) Fire-Rescue Department, in Burlington County, New Jersey, serves a rapidly growing community of 45,000 residents. A combination organization, we use a blend of career and volunteer personnel to deliver services that include fire suppression, basic life support transport, vehicle extrication, code enforcement, and public education. In our community, like many others, our fire stations and our apparatus blend into the local scenery. Our citizens have become so accustomed to seeing our busy fire apparatus and ambulances responding to calls that most people don’t even turn their heads to watch us go by. Conversely, there are also many fire departments around the country that run so few calls or cover such a large geographical area that many of their citizens never even see a fire truck or know where their closest fire station is located in the community.


(3) learn about firefighter protective clothing and SCBAs. (Photos by author.)

Today’s fire service faces daily uphill battles with local government officials who are looking for ways to trim the municipal budget. The fire department competes with other municipal agencies, including the police department, public works, the recreation department, and social services. We can win the war against budget reductions with the support of the local taxpayer. This can be accomplished by marketing your fire department through effective public education programs that reach adults and children.

The Citizens Fire Academy and Kids Safety Camp programs are examples of two low-cost and effective methods for increasing fire department awareness in the community while delivering fire and safety education.

CITIZENS FIRE ACADEMY

From 15 to 20 adult taxpayers from the community-representatives of community groups or civic organizations such as a condominium association, a local church, the Rotary Club, the Knights of Columbus, or the Shriners-participate in the Citi-zens Fire Academy program. The program entails attending classes promoting the fire department and its services one night a week, for four consecutive weeks, from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. The classes are held at a different fire-rescue station each week, allowing attendees to tour the station and its apparatus and other equipment.

The Citizens Fire Academy covers a wide range of topics pertaining to the fire department’s mission and services:

•Session 1: Fire Department History, Funding, and Operations.

•Session 2: An overview of our Preven-tion and Code Enforcement Division, a tour of our mobile safety trailer, and portable fire extinguisher training (each participant re-ceives a 2.5-pound ABC extinguisher, donated by Wal-mart and Target).

•Session 3: A citizen-level CPR certification course.

•Session 4: An overview of firefighter protective clothing and self-contained breathing apparatus, followed by a field trip to a local fire training center. At the fire training center, citizens watch as fire department personnel respond to a simulated house fire in a brick burn building. A fire department member narrates the demonstration and then escorts the citizens group to each apparatus for a discussion about the apparatus crew’s responsibilities on the fireground.

On completion of the academy, the citizens group attends the next monthly Board of Fire Commissioners meeting at which there is a formal graduation ceremony. The five-member Board of Fire Commissioners, elected by the public, oversees the collection of our fire district taxes and sets the policy for operating the fire department. The graduates receive certificates of completion and golf shirts embroidered with the fire department logo and the words “Citizens Fire Academy Graduate.”

THE KIDS SAFETY CAMP

Through the Kids Safety Camp program, 25 nine- and 10-year-old boys and girls spend two days at the fire station with “their local heroes.” During the two-day summer camp, they learn how the fire department operates and receive safety training in a variety of areas.

Day 1


Kids Safety Camp participants (4) receive medical training that includes CPR, choking emergencies, and bleeding control;

Day 1 begins with the parents checking their children in at a reception desk, where the children are given an official Evesham Fire-Rescue Kids Safety T-shirt and are made official members of the fire department for the duration of the camp. Our fire chief leads the group in the Flag Salute, welcomes them, and gives them an overview of the camp. The children then are taken on a tour of the station and its apparatus.

After the station tour, the campers are divided into two groups. One group goes on fire truck rides (seatbelted in the cab) while the other group watches a firefighter dress in his protective clothing and SCBA tank, becoming what some young children may view as “a monster” to be feared. The groups then switch places. After these activities, the campers eat lunch with the on-duty firefighters. Our department has partnered with the local McDonald’s and Burger King, which donate the lunches. While they are eating, the campers and firefighters watch fire videos and ask questions about the firefighter’s job.


(5) take a tour of the fire station; and

After lunch, the campers are given training in CPR, rescue breathing, bleeding control, and choking emergencies and the Heimlich maneuver.

The session ends with a more traditional discussion and video about fire safety in the home, followed by a tour through our mobile fire safety trailer.

Day 2

Day 2 begins with a field trip to a vacant building in the community that formerly housed the township municipal offices. Fire department personnel respond to a simulated building fire, using a smoke machine to simulate a fire. An adult rescue manikin is placed inside as a victim. Campers watch from a safe distance-on bleachers in the parking lot-as the chief, an engine company, a ladder company, and an ambulance respond and perform the duties associated with a normal structure fire.


(6) take turns at being “patients” transported in an ambulance.

The chief establishes a command post while the engine crew stretches a hoseline into the structure and searches for the victim. Wooden pallets are placed on the building roof the day before, allowing the ladder company to climb to the roof and simulate cutting a vent hole while the ambulance establishes a rehabilitation area.

On completion of the demonstration, the campers are escorted in small groups to each apparatus, where they can ask questions about the vehicle and its crew’s responsibilities.

Campers then return to the fire station where they watch our assistant county fire marshal, accompanied by his accelerant-detecting dog, Phoenix, discuss and dem-onstrate how dogs are used to investigate fires. After a brief discussion about the initial and ongoing training Phoenix receives, the fire marshal places small drops of flammable liquids around the room with an eyedropper. The campers are amazed when Phoenix is brought inside from a vehicle and locates all of the drops placed throughout the large room.


(7) Campers ride through the neighborhood practicing the hand signals they learned during the Bike Safety Rodeo.

After the morning activities, the campers are served lunch while on-duty personnel entertain them with stories of fires fought and lives saved.

After lunch, there is a lecture about bicycle safety that includes injury statistics related to bike crashes. Each camper is then sized and issued a bicycle helmet with fire department emblems on the front and sides. The campers and fire department personnel meet on the apparatus bay floor, where they mount their bicycles and participate in a bike safety rodeo course in the fire station parking lot. After two trips around the parking lot course, the campers and their firefighter camp counselors ride in small groups through the neighborhood side streets, practicing the hand signals taught in the earlier classroom lecture.

Day 2 ends with a formal graduation ceremony in the fire station training room. Campers’ parents, siblings, grandparents, and friends are invited. Each camper is given a certificate and shakes hands with the chief and the camp counselors. Cake is served, and visitors are taken on tours of the fire station. A group photo of the campers and fire department personnel is taken at the end of the ceremony; the photo is featured on our Web site, where the “graduates” and their family members and friends can view a slide show of the Safety Camp the following week. While visiting the site, parents and children alike tend to visit the many links on our Web site, thereby continuing to learn more about the fire department and its services.

PROGRAM BENEFITS

The costs to deliver these two programs are minimal; the benefits are infinite. One example of this occurred in March 2001 when our department experienced an unfortunate fire involving a civilian fatality at a private residence in a condominium complex. Despite an immediate and substantial response of on-duty fire suppression forces, the resident was trapped by a heavy volume of fire that had already extended to adjoining properties on our arrival. During this fire, a graduate of our first Citizens Fire Academy program, the president of the condominium complex tenants association, arrived at the fire scene. Without any prompting from fire department personnel, he immediately began walking around and speaking to the large crowd of residents that had gathered about the fire department’s operations. He explained that we had personnel on-duty, which allowed us to respond to this fire quickly or the fire destruction may have been much worse.

The local media cover each program. We have established a database of citizens who would come to the support of the fire department when necessary to lobby for needs such as the purchase of a new fire truck, renovation of a fire station, and hiring of additional personnel.

Graduates of the Citizens Fire Academy program and parents of the Kids Safety Camp attendees have helped us to increase voter turnout at our annual fire district budget elections. These programs also serve as recruitment tools for adding volunteer fire and medical personnel to our ranks. The children are also exposed to the fire department as a possible future career path.

If your fire department is the best-kept secret in your community, I hope that you have been motivated to change that. In today’s climate of municipal budget cuts and citizens demanding more for their tax dollars, the fire department must strive to establish relationships with the people in the jurisdiction they protect. We have been able to do this by marketing our fire department through public education. To learn more about the Citizens Fire Academy and the Kids Safety Camp, visit our Web site at www.eveshamfire.org.

MICHAEL ROBERTSON is a 17-year veteran of the fire service and has served as a company officer and a chief officer in volunteer and combination fire departments. He is currently a firefighter/inspector/EMT with the Evesham (NJ) Fire-Rescue Department, where he serves in the Training Division. He is the creator and coordinator of the Citizens Fire Academy and Kids Safety Camp programs. Robertson is a New Jersey Level II Fire Instructor and a staff instructor at the Burlington County (NJ) Fire Academy. He regularly attends courses at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public safety at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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