By Thomas A. Merrill
As volunteer firefighters, it is impossible to attend every community event we are asked to participate in. We can easily be overwhelmed with requests to attend block parties, chicken dinners, fund-raisers, community days, field days, school events, parades, and the variety of other activities that our communities host. However, we must recognize and accept the fact that the more involved we are, the more opportunities we have to deliver our message of service, commitment, dedication, and selflessness. It is also an opportunity to present ourselves as a professional volunteer fire department.
Although I always thought it was great to attend as many functions as possible, I also realized that our volunteers‘ time is precious and we had to be careful not to overcommit. I would always honestly convey to the person requesting our attendance that we would do our best to accommodate them, but I would let them know either way. I promised to communicate with them!
Good, solid, honest communication can help solidify the professional volunteer fire department’s reputation. Think of how aggravated you get when you have to leave countless messages for someone or your message never gets properly delivered in the first place. For that reason, whenever I received a message indicating a request, I would call the requestor back as soon as possible, oftentimes immediately. Sometimes in the volunteer departments we don’t always get to the firehouse every day and I imagine in some places it may be a long time between visits to the firehouse. So, if you have a voicemail waiting for you, or somebody tacked a message on the board, chances are there is a person who has been waiting for a return call and they may have been waiting for a while. You don’t have to have an answer for them right away. Maybe you still have to see if you can get some people together to take care of whatever it is they want. No matter, you simply need make contact with them to let them know you are working on it. They will really appreciate the fact that you got back to them. Again, think about it. Aren’t you impressed with an organization when they call you back in a timely manner? When they communicate with you? Doesn’t that make you feel like they care about you or what you need taken care of? Does that not convey a professional image? Even if you know you can’t honor their request, be honest and let them know. If you promised to be somewhere and something came up at the last minute that prevented you from going, say something! Let them know. Again, communicate. It is best to be open and honest than to leave them waiting and wondering. That simply leads to hard feelings and can create a bad department image.
When attending details, dress and act professionally. Presenting a clean, neat uniform appearance certainly portrays a professional image. My department is fortunate because we are able to issue our members what we call “duty uniforms,” work uniforms designed for just such occasions. They are comfortable to wear and identify our members as firefighters. But even if a department cannot issue uniforms, they should still strive to present a professional appearance by wearing department T-shirts or some other professional looking clothing to help identify them. However, let’s be careful and avoid those crazy T-shirts with logos in bad taste and inappropriate catch phrases–they portray anything but a professional image.
In addition to dressing professionally, we must act professionally. Try to remember whenever you attend these events and details, your behavior and demeanor directly represent your department. As firefighters, your personal acts can equate to your department‘s acts, as far as the public is concerned.
One thing I found myself constantly reminding our members was to watch the language. We are not in the firehouse club room, folks. Even in today’s more open society, it’s safe to say that parents are still very cognizant of the language being used around their children. In addition, be nice to people. Treat them like you want to be treated.
Attendance at certain events may even allow us to demonstrate our skills and competence from time to time. My department has the opportunity to stand by at our local high school football games. Unfortunately, every now and then, somebody gets hurts. It’s a great opportunity for us to showcase our skills and give patient care in front of hundreds of people. It’s even better for the patients because they are receiving immediate attention. At community block parties, we have had the opportunity to flow some water and operate our pumpers or ladder truck. This generates excitement and lots of questions from the spectators. Heck, often the adults are more excited than the kids. Good patient care and running the apparatus skillfully and competently certainly portrays a professional firefighter.
Sometimes opportunities exist to showcase your professional department and deliver your message of community service and dedication without even leaving the firehouse. I call it the open door policy. If at all possible, open your bay doors from time to time. Sit out front and mingle with the public. Let the kids walking by stop in and see you. Show off what you do. Tell your members if they see little kids (or even big kids) looking through the doors, open them up and invite them in. Nothing generates better positive public relations and warm feelings more than letting kids put on a fire helmet and hop up into a fire engine. It is also an opportunity to talk with the adults and let them know what we do and how seriously we take our “job.” We also like to keep some plastic fire helmets or other inexpensive “gifts” in our watch room to pass out. A few well-spent minutes entertaining children and educating the public about everything we do leave the visitors walking away with an extremely positive impression of the department and the firefighters.
Another thing we did to encourage interactions with our residents without even leaving the firehouse was to put benches out front. Our residents can take a seat and relax. Sometimes they get to watch us doing our tool checks, truck checks, or even our weekly drills. They can also catch us responding to calls. At the same time, our members can also use the benches and sit and relax while smiling and talking to our neighbors as they walk by.
A side-benefit from attending community events and spending time talking to residents can be new members. There have been many times we found ourselves talking to a group of residents who were surprised to learn that they were being protected by a 100-percent volunteer fire department. More than one of our current firefighters signed up when they learned of our volunteer membership. Your professional appearance, demeanor, and welcoming attitude could actually persuade a community member to join. They may decide that they want to be part of the great organization they are seeing displayed firsthand. Some departments actually take membership applications with them to hand out at community events. My department likes liked to keep a stack of applications in our watch room so that if a visitor to the firehouse expresses interest in joining, we can hand an application to them to take home. This prevents us from having to remember to mail one out or take one to their house later on.
Often participating in community events can also lead to donations to the department. Not that any department would participate on the condition that they receive a donation, but if one is received, I believe a nice thank you note is on order. You can even have inexpensive but very professional-looking thank-you cards preprinted with your department logo and name. A nicely printed thank you card on behalf of your department is a very classy and professional gesture
There certainly are limits to the amount of time volunteer firefighters can give to their organization, especially when it comes to activities not associated with training and responding to emergency calls. However, whenever your department does participate in community events and whenever interacting with the public, take advantage of the opportunity to paint your department’s professional image and highlight the professional qualities of your volunteer firefighters.
Tom Merrill is a 30-year fire department veteran in the Snyder Fire Department, which is located in Amherst, New York. He served 26 years as a department officer, including 15 years in the chief officer ranks, and recently completed five years as chief of department. He also is a professional fire dispatcher for the town of Amherst fire alarm office. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org