Improving Community Relations
—San Francisco Fire Dept, photos, Chet Born
Seldom are rocks thrown at San Francisco fire fighters any more. No hoseman, hooking up at a blaze, is zapped by snipers. And there are fewer false alarms in the City by the Golden Gate.
This happier lot of the once-beleagured fire fighter is no freak of chance. It is actually the result of a carefully planned and diligently executed community relations program on the part of the entire San Francisco Fire Department. Not the least of the factors responsible for the dramatic turnabout is the program’s fire fighter-director, Earl J. Gage, Jr.
Gage is a trailblazer who was the first black to enter the department and is now the first to assume a departmental command. Born in Texas, he was a surgical photographer for the Army after graduation from San Francisco City College and premedical study at the University of California. Gage was a driver at Engine 16, with the rank of fireman, when the fire commissioners and Mayor Joseph Alioto tapped him to head the community relations bureau.
The four-year-old bureau was previously led by battalion chiefs, but Gage is serving without any designation of rank or other special distinction. He reports directly to Chief Keith P. Calden. This is a deliberate device to encourage participation by all ranks in the work of the bureau, according to Fire Commissioner Morris Bernstein, who takes an active personal interest in community relations activities.
Reports directly to chief
Gage reports each Tuesday to Calden and the commissioners. His reports are crammed with constructive approaches and innovations directed toward solution of the department’s most pressing problems.
“Our first job was to sell the fire fighters themselves on public relations,” Gage recalled. “Then we had to improve our recruiting procedures to attract more minority group members. And finally, we looked for community support. We think it is important to give people something extra to be proud of before you ask for their support. The public is inclined to take even excellent fire protection service for granted.”
—San Francisco F.D. photo, J. Scheihing
The 1756 fire fighters of the 46 engine companies, two airport crashrescue companies, and the fireboat soon found their 10 fire districts inundated with monthly PR bulletins and a fire science technique training course coordinated by Captain Ai Potter. In a 10-day videotaped public relations course at San Francisco City College, volunteer experts covered a wide spectrum of key subjects: metropolitan environment, ethnic cooperation, prejudice, stereotypes and human relations, the socio-psychological image of the fireman, the urban family, the ghetto community, and antisocial behavior. Other specialists discussed the roots of urban discontent, fire department problems in a changing society, vandalism, and relations with intergovernmental agencies and the business community.
A new fire safety technician program is being sponsored by the fire department, mayor’s office, Civil Service Commission, Office of Economic Opportunity and United States Department of Labor. Under the program, 23 technicians, 19 to 30 years old, receive $3.00 an hour, 90 percent of which is from federal funds which also pay for uniforms and safety equipment for nine months, extended to 15 months upon completion of an entry level examination.
The main thrust of the fire safety technician program is toward improved community relations and understanding through career development of the participants.
There is plenty of work for all the volunteers under Gage’s energetic programming. Visits to schools, “so the kids won’t have to turn in an alarm to see a fireman,” and to youth organizations like the YMCA, in addition to civic groups, keep an inspector and two men occupied in “polishing the department’s image as friend, as well as protector. Men from neighborhood firehouses cheerfully check out hazards in private homes at the request of householders. And a busy speakers bureau stands ready to handle appearances before groups of all kinds.
The once-popular local custom of decorating firehouses for the Christmas season, abandoned because of mounting costs to the fire fighters, who paid for the sometimes lavish decorations out of their own pockets, will perhaps be revived as a community effort in line with the bureau’s goal of identifying the firehouse as a vital community resource. A plaque placed on the victorious fire station, crediting the community, would inject fresh enthusiasm into the competition.
Another move toward involving the community in department activities is an annual stay-at home picnic to help cut down Labor Day fatalities. Staged by the department for its own people, their families and the community at large in Golden Gate Park, the picnic events—including races, mammas’ hula hoop contests, and softball and volleyball games—are open to all and free to all.
Relations with the black community, a critical area in a department which numbered only four blacks on its roster when Gage was appointed, were at a stage where ghetto dwellers nurtured actual hostility toward fire fighters.
“They thought we were lily-white,” Gage explained. “The only answer we can see is mutual exposure.”
The first major effort was directed at the city’s schoolyards. Aerial 10, which has one of the department’s black fire fighters, challenged Anza Elementary, a 90 percent black school, to an all-star kickball contest, pitting sixth graders against a team of fire fighters and teachers, with Assistant Chief Joe Daly as umpire. Television, radio and press publicized the event.
“It’s hard to say who was most delighted,” Gage grinned. “Headquarters was pleased and the kids were pleased. But I think that the people who had the greatest fun were really our own men—even though we were walloped 20-4.”
Recruitment of blacks, despite the efforts of the community relations department and individual leaders like Battalion Chiefs Andy Casper and Jack Sherratt, has been inhibited by the failure of black applicants to persevere in their intentions to join the department, and by the increasing intensity of competition. Among the black applicants who qualified for a recent Civil Service examination, for example, 120 failed to appear for the test. Those who did show up found themselves pitted against a field in which 90 percent of their competitors had college backgrounds.
The San Francisco Fire Department and the Civil Service Commission staff have in the past and will in the future attempt to attract qualified minority applicants through a concerted recruiting campaign. Meanwhile, crash programs with 16 to 20 men in a six-week coaching cycle have been set up for black and other minority groups.
Has the cost of San Francisco’s three-pronged community relations effort affected the department’s budget? Hardly. Initial structuring of the bureau was done as a public service by Commissioner Bernstein. The bureau shares a small headquarters office with other functionaries.
Nevertheless, Calden, like his predecessor, retired Chief William F. Murray, is, in the words of Gage, “100 percent for the community relations program.” What’s more, despite budget limitations, both Gage and his superior officers are confident that their work is improving both internal and external relations to an extent unprecedented in the department’s history.