Public Relations— “BIG D” Style
SHORTLY after his appointment as chief of the Dallas Fire Department in 1945, Fire Chief C. N. Penn began an evaluation of the public relations program of the department. His analysis revealed many shortcomings. The first step taken to rectify these omissions was the appointment of a public relations officer. The fire marshal’s office, by the very nature of its business, deals with the public more than any other branch of the department, and for this reason, the fire marshal was appointed to head the public relations activities.
Since no one man can efficiently handle a public relations program for an organization comprising several hundred men, the entire personnel of the fire department were asked to make suggestions which would aid in bettering relations with the citizens whom they serve, and every Dallas fireman was requested to serve as a member of the public relations team. In addition, one officer and one inspector who had been doing fire prevention educational work were appointed as public relations assistants. Since 1946, this office has grown until it now includes an officer, six inspectors detailed to fulltime public relations activities and a stenographer-secretary to help handle the office records and correspondence, plus additional men as needed for special drives and activities. This group of public relations specialists report to, and are accountable directly to the fire marshal.
The fire marshal’s office and men conduct a year-round campaign of fire prevention education, beginning with youngsters in kindergarten and carrying through the public and parochial schools, business and industrial groups, civic and service clubs, youth organizations and Parent Teachers Associations. The campaign is carried on by means of lectures, motion pictures and demonstrations. As an example, each of the 145 public schools was visited during the recent school term at least once, and a fire prevention assembly program was presented in the school before the student body. In addition, teachers include fire safety education in their regular curriculum at regular intervals throughout the year. Practically every service club and civic organization witnesses one or more fire prevention programs each year. Business and industrial firms, especially the larger ones with large employee groups and high fire risks, are visited at frequent intervals. Fire safety demonstrations, including extinguishers and fire prevention suggestions, are made before groups of key employees.
Since only a limited percentage of the citizens can be reached through the aforementioned programs, radio and television are used to reach the housewives and others. All local radio stations are provided with fire safety and prevention “spot announcement” copy every four to six weeks and all use these spots at frequent intervals. Each of the three local television outlets has been most cooperative in helping to promote fire prevention. Sound-on-film fire safety spots are prepared and filmed by personnel in the fire prevention education and public relations office, as are slides and announcers’ copy. This material is used regularly by the TV stations. In addition, one 13-week series of 15-minute television programs called “Know Your Fire Department” enabled thousands of citizens to learn about fire safety, fire prevention and the men and equipment of the department. Regular daily radio broadcasts of fire news were carried for many months and were discontinued only recently when the sponsoring radio station changed its program format.
Realizing that the success of any public relations program depends to a great extent on the relations between the press and the organization promoting the campaign, a special effort was made to cultivate and improve relations between the department and the men and women representing the various news media. All battalion chiefs and company officers are encouraged to cooperate to the fullest extent in helping reporters and photographers in getting the pictures and story material at incidents which involve fire department personnel. Three members of the public relations staff are on 24-hour call duty to major fires and special incidents and one of their primary responsibilities upon arrival is to aid the press representatives in securing story material and making certain that the material obtained is as factually correct as possible. As a result of these activities, both daily papers are most cooperative when they are approached with a story which the fire department wants to bring to the attention of local citizens.
One unique approach to the fire prevention problem used by the public relations office includes the daily mailing of personal letters to each new family moving into the City of Dallas, to each family occupying a newly built house, and to the owner of each new business establishment. These letters welcome the newcomers to the city, offer various informational services and appeal to the recipients to “practice fire safety and fire prevention measures.” Occupants of new homes are congratulated on their new residences and urged to practice fire safety to protect their investment and their families. The letters to new businesses are similar in nature and all three include a pamphlet titled “Home Fires and You,” in which many of the more common fire hazards are discussed and suggestions made as to how to remove them.
Dallas is the home of the State Fair of Texas, and this fair is open each year during Fire Prevention Week. The Dallas department has for the past 12 years during this event secured and decorated a booth on fire safety. With an annual attendance of over two million persons, the fair provides an opportunity for reaching many thousands of Texans with a message concerning fire prevention. In addition, exhibits are also set up at the annual Home Show and many other similar trade shows which play to local citizens.
Visits to stations welcomed
Fire stations are always open for visits by citizens, either singly or in sponsored groups. A week never passes by but that a Cub Scout pack, Boy Scouts or a class of school children do not visit the stations. Supplies of fire prevention literature are kept on hand for these visitors.
Through the cooperation of the training division, a series of three fire “thrill shows” were presented last summer to which the public was invited. Held at the drill tower and training center, these shows afforded the department an opportunity to demonstrate new equipment and the newest techniques in fire fighting. Response was so good that plans are being made to continue this on an annual basis throughout the summer months.
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DALLAS PUBLIC RELATIONS
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One of the best public relations programs or “gimmicks” is the firemen’s string band—the Fire House Rhythm Kings. Formed about two years ago to provide a different type of program for civic groups, etc., this group of fire fighter-musicians has proved so popular with their repertoire of hillbilly, western, popular and rock ’n roll numbers that they play an average of five to 10 programs each week. Although primarily an entertainment program, the master of ceremonies injects fire prevention and fire safety into every program by using short, snappy commercials on this important subject as he announces the numbers. The “Kings” have appeared before audiences totaling over 250,000 persons during the past two years, plus a number of radio and television appearances.
Photo unit set up
An integral part of the fire prevention education and public relations office is the photo unit. One of the men is assigned to this unit full time and all others are able to fill in when necessary. Equipment includes a 16mm sound-on-film camera, a 16mm silent camera, two 4×5 press camera, two 35mm cameras, plus the numerous other devices and equipment required to operate an up-to-date photo unit and laboratory. All processing and printing, including color slides, are done in the lab, with the single exception of movie film. Two men are on call at all times to answer major fire calls and unusual emergencies involving fire equipment. In addition, one of our assistant instructors is also on 24-hour call with still another movie camera and press camera. This man is primarily interested in recording photos which will be of value to the department’s training division. Plans are under way to film a number of fire prevention and training movies as time will permit.
Although not new in the fire service, one of the stations in particular has made quite a name for itself in Dallas County through its “Toys for Tots” campaign each Christmas. Firemen at this particular station work the year round on a collection of toys which they repair and paint, and then personally deliver on Christmas Eve to needy children in the Dallas area. It is estimated that at least 2,000 children have received gifts from this one fire station every Christmas for the past several years. Although many other stations participate in this or similar activities, Dallas’ No. 27 Station stands out above them all in this community project.
Firemen are encouraged to participate actively in all phases of civic work and a number of fire fighters hold high offices in national and international service clubs. A walking blood bank made up of firemen regularly contributes blood to youngsters needing open heart surgery. Dallas fire fighters sponsor and work actively in the annual drive to raise funds for combatting muscular dystrophy. In addition to their regular contributions to the Red Cross and Community Chest campaigns, Dallas firemen hold their own campaigns to benefit the Salvation Army each year at Christmastime.
For several years the Dallas Fire Department has cooperated with the Jaycees and other civic groups in the promotion of a “Miss Flame” contest to help publicize Fire Prevention Week. During recent years this contest has spread into the other incorporated cities and towns in the county and now the contest is climaxed on the Saturday ending Fire Prevention Week by the selection of “Miss Flame of Dallas County.” This final elimination contest brings the beauties representing some 12 to 15 cities together on a mammoth outdoor stage at the State Fair of Texas where several thousand spectators view the proceedings. The winner, chosen by professional judges, receives her crown of office plus numerous merchandise gifts contributed by businessmen and merchants.
Good relations with neighbors
In keeping with its policy of improving relations with local citizens, the department has endeavored to lead the way in bettering the relations between firemen of the different communities in Texas. For the past several years it has furnished an average of 15 to 20 officers and men to serve as instructors at the Texas Firemen’s Training School. In addition, it co-sponsors with the State Fair of Texas the annual pumper races for volunteer firemen in the North Texas area. This contest is expected to be thrown open to any department within the State by October, with prizes totaling $1,000 for the top three racing teams.
In addition to the specific items outlined above, every man in the Dallas Fire Department is given training in the elements of public relations, beginning with the newest recruits in the training school and continuing into every firehouse and special unit of the department. Since the department is now enjoying the finest relations with the citizens in its history, officials are convinced that it is all very worthwhile. Chief Penn receives several letters each week from citizens complimenting the conduct, activities and efficiency of the firemen, both as individuals and as groups. Dallas fire fighters are convinced that a good public relations program is as important to the fire service as is a good training program and heartily recommend it to firemen.