Making Your Agency Transparent

To ensure public trust, fire departments must seek out ways to share information

By Tom Jenkins
Published Friday, February 22, 2013

The operational environment for today’s fire and EMS departments is different than it was just a decade ago. Cutback environments abound, and fire chiefs are often ill-prepared to lead organizations that are designed to be reactionary and unfriendly to outside intrusion.

In fact, today’s fire departments must not only be able to weather outsider inspection; they must invite it. All governmental entities, especially fire departments, must embrace and seek out opportunities to be transparent. And much of that transparency will happen online and through social media. The concerned or interested citizen of today expects to be able to find out anything they want to know within a few minutes using their smartphone or laptop computer.

In every state and the District of Columbia, freedom of information laws are in place that govern how the public can access elements of our business, whether those are official records, incident reports, audio and video media, or e-mail. Often government agencies see friction with these laws and feel only a need to comply with their minimum requirements. Instead, embrace the opportunity to show our citizen constituents, local media, public officials and allied public safety organizations that we want to share our performance and information through proactive disclosure.

Put another way: If you were a citizen wanting to learn how your tax dollars were spent or how the local fire station performed, what grade would you give your fire department?

How to Get Started
The nature of our business is optimistic. Rarely do you find citizens happy with their trash service, local police or water quality. However, firefighters are generally well-liked and trusted. This creates an opportunity to build upon that existing relationship through information sharing. Yet fire departments by and large do a very poor job sharing information using the Internet and social media.

To get your agency on the path of being transparent, begin first by looking at what data you’re already capturing and sharing offline. Most agencies already produce reports at various time intervals for our elected public officials. Place those documents on your website, making them available for all to see. It only makes sense to share this information if we’re already going to the trouble of creating it.

The topic of social media in the fire service usually revolves around its inappropriate use by some of our employees. However, when used correctly by a trained member in an official capacity, social media can be the most effective and efficient way to reach your public. To utilize it, start first by identifying what kinds of information you want to disseminate. Typically, the most communicative public safety agencies will share:

  • Current incidents of a certain size or magnitude (first-alarm fires, traffic bulletins)
  • Public education information (fire prevention, injury prevention, public health)
  • Department news and planned events (new apparatus, promotions, awards)


Because of the viral nature of social media, it isn’t uncommon to have thousands of people reading the information you share within a few months of beginning the project. Compare the effectiveness of social media to how many human resource hours it might take to share the same message with as many people face-to-face in your city. Social media makes our departments more visible and dynamic. Arguably, when people have information available at their fingertips, their level of trust and ownership of their local emergency responders increases.

Going Further
Once your agency has embraced some of the basics of transparency and visibility, consider expanding into a progressive posture. Create information for the sole purchase of sharing it with the public and publish documents regardless of whether or not you think anyone would be interested in reading them. It is common for other fire departments to visit the websites of transparent agencies to help gather ideas and information for their own use. Some excellent examples: Lawrence, Kansas; Santa Rose, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; and Los Angeles, just to name a few.

When looking for ideas, consider the following:

  1. Put your standard operating guidelines/procedures on your website. Doing so has many benefits, from providing a resource to other agencies looking for a sample policy, to helping our own firefighters reference updated policies from the convenience of their personal computers. In my own agency, I’ve found that we have eager recruits who enter the academy with a robust working knowledge of our policies, simply because our SOPs/SOGs are on the Web.
  2. Showcase your fire stations, specialized equipment and apparatus. Whether your apparatus are long past their prime or still have shiny chrome, it’s good for the public to know what is protecting them. Capital expenditures usually come through tax extensions or increases that require the public to vote. Websites can be an excellent medium to allow your public to know what your needs are and why various resources need replacement. Use pictures or virtual tours to allow visitors a chance to see the level of care you provide, or the deficiencies you’re trying to address through future resource improvements.  
  3. Measure outputs and outcomes that affect your agency. Public safety agencies do a good job of counting, but not a great job of measuring our results. We know how many medical emergencies we respond to, but rarely can you find published information on how many cardiac arrest victims had a return of pulse (ROSC) or were alive and discharged from the hospital. Similarly, we count how many fires we have, but can the public find out how much property has been saved through the efforts of fire suppression? Challenge yourself and the staff of the department to create performance report cards in the various functional areas of the organization. Can a citizen find out how many fires and car wrecks occurred in their city council district? Can that same citizen find out what the response time was to their council district, 90 percent of the time (NFPA 1710)?
  4. Make problem-solving simple. Our citizens are our best advocates. Allow them to connect with the people of your organization through photographs, biographies and contact information. When people do have a concern or a question they are more likely to contact a named individual than a simple generic email address for the department.

Our Future Depends on It
The ideas for making your department transparent are endless. And it’s not just good for the department and the citizen. Transparency is also a good way to extend careers and get the financial support for the resources we need. Set an example among other city/county agencies in your area and make it a priority for your citizens to have access to your agency through your website and social media.

Resources
Sunshine Review: www.sunshinereview.org
Sunshine Review is a website about state and local government transparency, engaged citizens and holding government officials accountable. The Sunshine Review wiki collects and shares information about state and local transparency using a 10-point Transparency Checklist to evaluate 6,000 state and local government websites. Sunshine Review is a non-profit that collaborates with individuals and organizations across America to promote state and local transparency.

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Making Your Agency Transparent

To ensure public trust, fire departments must seek out ways to share information
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