Preparing to Face Public Criticism

By ALLAN RICE

The fire service has always been held in high esteem by our communities. We are typically seen as the “good ones” who help the public with their problems. After 9/11, that admiration heaped on America’s firefighters reached an historic high; this helped our recruiting efforts, as people were drawn to our ranks to be part of our highly regarded fire service family. Images of firefighters were featured in political ads and product commercials, communities launched firefighter appreciation events, and businesses created discount programs to honor our members. In short, it was “cool” to be us and attached to us.

Public Perception

In recent years, we have seen some changes in public opinion. Although many firefighters still feel appreciated by the people they serve, we are now seeing a wave of behavior that can be troubling and maybe even a bit disorienting among our ranks. Critics of firefighters have typically been few; we usually view these people as belonging to the “Hate Us ‘Cause They Ain’t Us” group of “wannabes” who secretly wish they were part of the fire service. Today, however, we are seeing more examples of what could be described as anti-fire service rhetoric and actions. Have we prepared our members for these events, or are we at risk of reacting in ways that further erode public sentiment?

Recently, I walked into a public meeting wearing a raincoat that displayed the logo of a government agency. Suddenly, an attendee asked, “Is that what our tax dollars go for? So you can have a nice raincoat?” At first, I hoped that the comment was just an effort to give me some grief, but the tone of voice and facial expression of my inquisitor told a different story. He was genuinely offended that I had been issued a required uniform item by an employer. For a few moments, I was at a loss for words; I then was only able to muster a feeble response.

After thinking about this exchange later, I marveled at how strange it seemed to be challenged over such a seemingly insignificant issue. It also occurred to me that if I, a veteran public safety employee and administrator, could be caught off guard by such comments, how would a new firefighter have responded?

This event caused me to think about how we train our people to deal with these public relations “opportunities.” Are we deliberately preparing them to understand that they might encounter someone who is not a fan of public safety, the entire government, or perhaps even the fire department? Do we realize that the average citizen might not be able to distinguish among different public safety agencies – or how he might not even care? Just as we should be providing proper gear and training to deal with physical threats, are we equipping our members to skillfully deflect scornful remarks or criticisms lobbed at them by the public?

The root of this issue goes beyond hurt feelings; by no means do I think we deserve a “trigger warning” before someone offends us. However, the real challenge comes in making our personnel aware that some citizens have viewpoints about us that we might not expect. How we react to these incidents can either create a fire service supporter or reinforce a detractor.

How Do We Respond?

Following are some proper responses that our members should consider when they are faced with a potential confrontation:

  • Don’t be shocked when it happens. Criticism of public officials is popular in today’s culture, so don’t be overly shocked when it occurs. Yes, even firefighters can be subjected to harsh comments from citizens.
  • Weigh the value of responding carefully. Before offering any type of response, think about whether it will make a difference. If the person making the comments/complaints is impaired, too angry to be reasonable, and so on, save your breath.
  • Let the person in charge respond. If an immediate response is warranted, anything that is said will be viewed as an “official” statement on behalf of your agency. Deferring to the most senior member present is the best course of action.
  • Maintain professionalism. Tone of voice, word choice, and body language will all be scrutinized subconsciously by your critic and any witnesses present. As tempting as it might be to stoop to the critic’s level, be ready to take the professional high ground.
  • Make only one attempt to reply. If a response seems appropriate, make only one effort to answer/explain. Don’t get drawn into a protracted argument; you’ll never win, and it will only embolden the critic.
  • Document, document, document. As soon as you can, make a few brief notes, send an e-mail, or otherwise archive the event and what was said to and by you. Informing your chief/administrator/supervisor about the incident and having good notes will be appreciated if the event escalates; such steps could protect your integrity.

Although physical violence toward firefighters seems to have increased, there also appears to be a rise in verbal altercations in which our members are criticized for perceived slow response times, acts of indifference to those in need, or simply stopping to buy groceries while on duty. Some of the higher-profile events have an obvious cause, such as two widely publicized cases in which fire department employees refused to render proper aid to those in need, but others can probably be attributed to a general displeasure with the government. These underlying attitudes are not limited to just one side of the political aisle. We must examine the messages that we send to our personnel about how to deal with such an event when it occurs.

ALLAN RICE is the city administrator for Hoover, Alabama. He was previously the executive director of the Alabama Fire College and the Personnel Standards Commission and is a former president of the North American Fire Training Directors. Rice began his fire service career in 1992.

Dealing With Seriously Bad Behaviors, Part I
Dealing With Seriously Bad Behaviors, Part 2
Dealing With Seriously Bad Behaviors, Part 3
Dealing With Seriously Bad Behaviors, Part 4
Positive Public Perception in the Fire Service
Attitudes and Fire Service Perceptions

 

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