By Tom Warren
What is the image that your department portrays to the public? Is it the image you want it to be; is it what you think it is? Is your department an integral part of the community, or is it simply a necessary evil?
The public image of your department can be the life blood for your organization and can have a great impact on its ability to function and grow to meet the future needs of the community it serves. The public image is a shared responsibility of everyone in the organization, and it is a work in progress every day. Every member of your department has an individual roll to play in portraying your department as a professional, competent, and caring organization. The success of your organization can be tied to how it is perceived by the public that finances it.
Public relations campaigns are nothing new in the private sector, and companies spend millions of dollars cultivating their corporate image as well as the image of the products and services they provide. The fire service should examine this practice and use it as an example to promote our vital work to the public we serve.
There are two components to consider for a successful public image strategy. Each component requires the efforts of a specific group of people in your organization, but there will always be some overlap. The first component is the day-to-day interaction of firefighters and the public; the other is the administrative benchmarks and marketing of the chief officers of the department. Each component has a different set of tools available to them to help make them successful.
INTERACTING WITH THE PUBLIC
The first component, the daily public interactions of the firefighters, includes the chief officers assigned to active response roles. This direct public contact is available to every firefighter and can be very powerful.
Demonstrating pride in the organization is at the core of a positive public image. The public is very perceptive and can tell immediately when firefighters have pride in themselves and their organization. Simply showing up is not enough: Each firefighter must take the steps necessary to project a professional appearance, competency, and compassion for those who called for help.
First, check the appearance of each firefighter. Are they clean shaven, wearing a clean uniform, and wearing their personal protective equipment properly? Do they display the proper rank insignias? Do they employ the correct infection-control procedures? We have all made judgments about a person’s abilities based on our first impression of them. It is human nature, and we can expect to be judged in the same manner. It is not only the appearance of the individual firefighters at work here–the public will also judge the appearance of your apparatus. As we are all aware, replacing fire apparatus is an expensive undertaking, and because of tight municipal budgets, replacement may be long overdue. Still, every fire apparatus operator and the officer-in-charge are responsible to maintain the appearance of their apparatus in a clean and organized condition, regardless of its age.
The second step deals with firefighter competency. Do they bring the correct equipment for the task at hand, and do they know how to use that equipment? Is the equipment clean and functioning correctly? Rusty axes and empty oxygen bottles send the wrong message. Do they appear indecisive, or are they working quickly, and with purpose? Do they coordinate with other firefighters and EMTs, or are their actions disorganized and haphazard? Are they panicky and yelling at one another, or do they appear well trained and experienced?
It is critical to display compassion for the people we serve; it will have lasting effects. Some situations which demonstrate your department’s commitment to compassion include the following:
- Taking the time to hold an elderly person’s hand.
- Filling a child’s bicycle tire with air.
- Making sure an apartment door is locked before leaving, safe keeping a person’s valuables and heirlooms.
- Pumping a flooded basement.
- Moving a fallen tree limb.
- Listening to a community group’s concerns at a public meeting.
The list goes on and on. We swear an oath to help people, and that is exactly what is expected of us; we simply need to look around at what needs to be done and do it. We need to display respect for those who need our services and never talk down to anyone.
The second component rests solely with the department’s administration and chief officers. Every chief officer responsible for the operation of the department must consider the department’s image every day in everything that is done. There is a lengthy list of opportunities to promote the department every day; they can be grouped in two broad areas: interaction with the municipal government and interaction with the public.
First, let’s consider what is involved with interactions with the municipal government. A fire chief has a fiduciary responsibility for the department and often meets with a variety of government officials. Fire chiefs must promote their departments and the people who serve the community at every opportunity. The fire chief can discuss several subjects with these officials to help promote the department:
- Ongoing training programs
- Work being undertaken for national accreditation
- Keeping within the department’s budget
- Fire prevention/safety activities
- School programs
- New apparatus
- Meeting the goals of the strategic plan
- Letters of thanks from the public
A chief should always stay focused on the positive aspects without dismissing areas of concern within the department. Every organization has shortcomings that are opportunities for self-reflection and improvement. Input from all groups involved in the organization’s success should be considered, especially any labor organization. Consideration of a labor organization’s views is vital; however, you must be reasonable and match the views of the labor organization with the mission, resources, and responsibilities of the department. A positive public image is also beneficial to labor organizations, making the labor organization a stake holder as well.
Second, let’s look at the fire chief’s interaction with the public. Here again, there are many opportunities to promote the department directly with the people it serves.
Community/neighborhood meetings are an excellent opportunity to promote the department as well as answer questions regarding its operation. Community organizations love to meet with their fire chief, so ensure that there is a chief officer at every community/neighborhood meeting. The fire chief cannot accomplish this alone–it will be a team effort of every chief officer.
At these meetings, the chief can do the following:
- Discuss operating procedures
- Deliver pertinent fire safety messages
- Offer invitations to the public to neighborhood fire stations
- Distribute smoke detectors
- Discuss diversity/inclusion policies
- Discuss the future plans for the department
- Answer any questions that may arise.
This same approach can be used effectively with business and civic organizations.
Another tool the fire chief has the media. Whether through TV, radio, or print, the media is an effective way to get the message of the department out and to receive input from the public. A fire chief should always schedule time for the media, whether at the scene of an emergency or a personal interview. A fire chief who is approachable, engaging, and is clearly proud of his organization is the most effective tool for establishing a positive image for the fire department.
Maintaining positive public relations is an ongoing pursuit that requires all department members’ participation. Every firefighter contributes an important piece to the final product. The benefits of a positive public image are many, including increased public/business support, more stable financial funding streams, less contentious labor negotiations, and a strong sense of pride in the organization from both firefighters and the community. Once a department has established a positive public image, it enables the department to navigate the difficult times that will inevitably arise.
THOMAS N. WARREN has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He recently retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. He holds a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Providence College, an associate degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island, and a certificate in occupational safety and health from Roger Williams University.