The Volunteer Fire Service and the Public: The 785 Club

By Ron Roy

During a panel I was sitting on at a recent fire service convention, a firefighter brought up the subject of the public’s perception of the fire service during financially challenging times, an issue which is affecting departments across the nation. The conversation focused primarily on identifying if there were any inaccurate public perspective exists in our communities regarding local fire services. If they do exist, what could fire departments and firefighters do to influence and change that perception to make it more accurate and favorable? Most fire departments and firefighters are actively engaged with the community and many charitable organizations, with the common goal to assist and serve locally. If in the event the community and its residents perceive a diminished quality and vision in their fire service, what can we do?

The answer to this challenging question brings me to my story of the 785 Club. In September of 2012, a lightning storm made its way through the Cascade Mountains of eastern Washington and started more than 100 fires in the area. Several of these fires covered hundreds of thousands of acres in a short period of time and provided a significant amount of smoke and air quality issues in our region. Each day, weather reports were replaced by health alerts because of the amount of smoke blanketing the area in an inversion layer. As the events unfolded in eastern Washington, residents rallied to help others who were having trouble. The spirit of service and assistance really comes out in difficult situations like these.

Geographically, these fires prompted widespread evacuations and affected a large and diverse population. Numerous families and animals were displaced and required a safe haven for an indefinite amount of time. Local hotels and restaurants opened their doors to offer assistance to those who were evacuated along with the Red Cross and local churches. The local apple harvest was starting to get into full swing, and health considerations for the agricultural workforce became a high priority and were addressed. Routine activities were changed for everyone in the area, including schools, local businesses, and the fire service.

About two weeks into the barrage of daily fire and health reports, a seven-year-old girl named Tessa and her father stopped by one of my fire stations. Tessa brought with her a donation for the firefighters. She had arrived with all of her savings, a total of $7.85. It was a small gesture of the large appreciation she had. Tessa sought assurance that the firefighters would receive it.

Captain Mike was on shift and talked with Tessa and her dad, and provided them with a VIP fire station tour. Tessa was elated with the time given to her and her father to see the trucks and the station. Captain Mike thanked them for the generosity and committed to pass on the funds to the volunteer association. As promised, during the executive board meeting, the money was delivered to me, the volunteer association treasurer, along with the full narrative and details of Tessa’s moving story. I acknowledged the challenges of demonstrating exactly when and where this special $7.85 donation would be used. As a result of that discussion, I challenged each member of our fire department to match Tessa’s $7.85 donation. It was all that she had to invest to show her appreciation to the fire department, and it meant a lot to her. In turn, I believe it is our responsibility, as good stewards, to ensure it makes a difference. It might just be $7.85, but if it were to be matched to another $7.85, it could ultimately grow to become a significant amount available that we could specifically designate to a budget area or special project. My challenge was received well by the membership. In response, some folks gave their matching $7.85 that very night.

The next morning during my walk, I kept thinking about Tessa’s actions and her heartfelt $7.85 donation. What could we do with it? How much could that amount to over time? One idea came straight to mind and resonated: The 785 Club. I strongly believe we need to retell Tessa’s story for members of the department and the fire service and challenge others to join The 785 Club. If we were to make it an annual campaign for matching donors in the small amount of $7.85, perhaps most would join and collectively it can make a difference!

Just recently, I spoke to the local Rotary club about volunteering at my fire department and the details involved. I ended my talk with the story about Tessa and The 785 Club and challenged Rotary members to participate. I had several people at the meeting that said that it was the right thing to do, and if Tessa could give her $7.85, so could they! Later that day I relayed the story to my own mother and she joined. Shortly thereafter, she told one of her friends, and she joined as well. This young girl’s generous action has started its own “wildfire” by word of mouth. I am committed to ensuring that seven- year-old Tessa has her story told of generosity, and no amount is too small to make a significant difference in a fire service supported community.

Why tell this story now? It is great opportunity to motivate members. After sharing time with fire service members in western Washington and the conversations of perception from our communities and the public in general, I believe a unique opportunity awaits to change and positively shape your public and community perception. For me personally, it came knocking on our fire station door with one hand and carrying a handful of dollars in the other. Thank you very much, Tessa, for providing the fire services with a renewed, simple, and focused vision. Please take a moment to look around and see if you have a Tessa at your fire department front door. It is my personal hope that we as firefighters meet the litmus test of a seven-year-old and her expectations of her local fire department and its members. She has committed and invested in us. Now it’s time for us to follow suit.

You can join Tessa and The 785 Club in making a difference in our community, contact ronr@douglasfire2.org.

Ron Roy is a division chief of Douglas County Fire District #2 in East Wenatchee, Washington. He has been a member of the volunteer fire service since 1973 and has spent 20 years at Douglas County Fire District #2. He is a member and past president of the Washington State Fire fighters’ Association and an alternate director of the National Volunteer Fire Council.

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