By Jon Hansen
Published Friday, June 15, 2012
We’re all painfully aware of the drastic budget cutbacks occurring across the country. The very survival of our fire departments—and the citizens we are sworn to protect—is at risk. But we can’t wait for others to speak on our behalf to protect our department’s services. We all have to become our own advocates, and that will involve developing innovative approaches to promoting what we do and the positive impact we have on our communities every day. With this in mind, following are some suggestions that can make a difference.
As firefighters, we are all acutely aware of the myriad services we provide to a community. But are our citizens aware of these duties? Consider the engine company alone. Engine companies are like multi-functional pieces of equipment with operators and personnel who perform countless services. Sure, bulldozers, dump trucks and refuge trucks are all important, but comparatively speaking, they have restricted applications.
When a citizen sees an engine responding, they probably think it’s headed to someone’s house to extinguish a fire, but as we all know, engine companies do so much more than this. Even fire suppression itself is multi-faceted. The crew might be going to a commercial site, or possibly an educational, recreational or governmental entity. Many times, the incident represents a major economic blow to the community, making us not only firefighters, but also protectors of the economy.
Firefighters are also instrumental in EMS and other aspects of public safety, such as responses to hazmat incidents, aircraft/train crashes and vehicle accidents. The crew may be headed to a rescue in a high-rise building or a trench, or to swift water or drowning scene. And the engine company is usually the first- line response to floods, tornadoes, severe weather, ice storms and earthquakes, as well as most terrorist activities. In short, with the added assistance of specialized units, we are an all-hazards provider—and we need to ensure that our communities know it!
Where do we begin these educational efforts? For one, visiting local businesses for preplanning purposes provides ample opportunities for engine companies to demonstrate their value. Tip: When helping local businesses comply with regulations, I’ve shifted away from the term “Code Enforcement” in favor of “Code Assistance.” It’s a softer way of showing that we are there to help them stay safe—not bully them into complying with a code.
And don’t forget to involve all the special sections of your fire department in your efforts. Public education officers, fire prevention specialists and arson investigators help prevent future incidents—and it’s important that the public understands the vital role they play. Be sure to include their important contribution when speaking with the media and citizen groups. Take a page from the popular CSI TV shows and work up a feature story about your town’s own version of fire investigators. Do another to highlight public education staff. If there is ever an occasion when a young person saves lives putting into practice what they have learned, have the fire marshal or fire chief present them with a medal! Every time you’re in the community, it’s an opportunity to educate our customers. No one is going to do it for us.
There are many ways that we can demonstrate our value in terms of cost savings to the community—and just being smart about how we spend our money.
One-way to save the department money: Re-structure and present your wage packages as performance-based programs. Proposing furlough days for everyone instead of deleting positions can be a win-win situation. Instead of raises, supplement compensation with incentive programs to reward behavior that saves the city money. For example, create an incentive for firefighters to stop smoking, which favorably impacts medical insurance costs. Another example from Oklahoma is our statewide-earned tax credit for volunteer firefighters who complete certain levels of training each year. Training allows them to be more productive in protecting people and property. In addition, training keeps them safer, which minimizes state workers’ compensation and insurance costs. All have positive effects on our economy!
Explore ways to increase alternate revenue streams, such as collecting fees for clean up from businesses that cause hazmat incidents or from insurance companies in the case of vehicle accidents or similar situations. Note: Be sure to check the legality of this option with your city attorney. If it is not currently legal, work through the steps to allow for this billing to be done.
When it comes to demonstrating our value to the community, another important step is to collect data that shows how we save the city money. Your IT staff and fire marshal’s office are already collecting this information. By working with those involved in budget preparation, you should be able to distill the important information by planning in advance.
Also, stress your multiple-use applications. Think about ways in which certain sections or equipment can do double-duty. Engine companies can also serve as mobile fire prevention units. Equipment from apparatus, such as floodlights, can be used for emergency night work by the water department or road workers. Fire stations can function as official “safe havens,” which is increasingly important as crime typically increases during poor economic times. Stations can also serve as sites for life-safety classes or other community activities. Being proactive in this arena with brief feature spots for the media can let people know. Radio and TV stations are required to do a certain number of public service announcements. Make yours exciting and personalized to your town, so that they do double-duty!
Demonstrate how each engine company impacts your community’s ISO rating. Cutting back on staffing at the fire department can actually be FALSE savings. If people and property are not adequately protected, insurance costs for families and businesses increase. The reality: It all comes out of the taxpayers’ pockets—and the public needs to understand this!
Use every opportunity to emphasize that your fire department provides the biggest bang for the community’s buck. And collect facts and figures that support this—and share them widely.
Increase the visibility of your department. As I have already noted, work WITH the media, as they can reach a wide audience quickly and efficiently. Publicizing your department is even more critical nowadays, and it can reap many benefits in the event of a major disaster.
Get the word out to decision-makers at the municipal, county and state levels in addition to key community contacts and business leaders. Have a presence with your Chamber of Commerce and local civic clubs. Encourage interested firefighters to participate with community event committees. It can minimize the likelihood of unsafe scenarios and help if an emergency does develop.
And don’t forget John Q Public! The voters, our customers, are instrumental in departmental survival in many ways. Be sure citizens do not see firefighters “just sitting around” at their stations. Every firefighter in your department can become a PR person. It is the simple courtesies that people remember. Chief Alan Brunacini recounts the many heartfelt letters received when he was chief in Phoenix. Encourage a letter-writing campaign by sharing these letters with your city council and key decision-makers, and the media. And post them on your departmental website.
Nurture these relationships by having “Welcome to Our World” activities for reporters, government officials, citizens and business professionals. Let them feel the weight of all the gear we wear. Let them climb stairs in a smoke-filled building. Let them walk “a mile” in our boots.
Emphasize the Positive
Traditionally, we present incident outcomes by describing the number of injuries, the body count or dollar value lost in a fire or disaster. Previously, we probably would have described this scene as something like, “XYZ company burned down last night with a loss of $2 million dollars.” Instead, turn it around. Talk about the two adjacent businesses and the $4 million dollars that were saved. When there is a fire fatality, explain, with respect, about the deceased, but also share information about any survivors whom firefighters were able to rescue.
We know firsthand how family and friends are affected by the loss of a loved one or being displaced when their home is burned. When commercial property is destroyed, there are additional ongoing ramifications. We sometimes forget that fire departments play a role in economic development. Our ability to put out the fire quickly and efficiently has a GREAT impact on the local economy. When businesses burn, there is a significant economic impact to the community, besides the immediate impact to the owners and employees.
Traditionally, the fire service has been slow to change. But keep in mind that it’s much more palatable (and less disruptive) to make changes internally, rather than to have others force unpredictable changes upon us. Think “outside the box” about how we can save money—in ways that have a minimal impact on delivery of service. In short, take every opportunity to show the positive effect your department has on your local economy. It matters during tough economic times!
In addition to his suppression and administrative roles as assistant fire chief, Jon Hansen was functioning as the Oklahoma City Fire Department’s PIO at the time of the Murrah Building bombing in 1995. After 26 years with the department, he retired and worked in the private sector in several public safety-related positions. He has returned to the public sector as the executive director for the Oklahoma Council on Firefighter Training, which works on many aspects of training for volunteer and paid firefighters and EMS responders across the state.
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