By Stephen Marsar
Published Saturday, April 28, 2012
| From the June 2012 Issue of FireRescue
We all know that sometimes citizens (aka, customers) see our fire apparatus out in the community—not actively responding to calls—and don’t understand that we’re often training or simply shopping for the meal (yes, we do like to eat!).
Overcoming the public’s perception (or misconception) is an extremely important part of our jobs. The funny thing about perception is that it’s viewed by the individual as truth, even though it may be the furthest thing from it. So, how do you as a company officer (or firefighter) overcome negative public perception and sentiment?
The first step: Acknowledge that the general public does not know what we do on a daily basis.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
One day, my crew and I took the ladder truck out to help a brother firefighter change a tire on his car in front of his apartment complex. We weren’t far from the firehouse and were well within our first-due response area; however, a neighbor saw us changing the tire and came out of his apartment, outraged that his tax dollars were paying for this. “Shouldn’t you be out fighting fires instead of changing a tire?” he questioned with attitude. The crew collectively put their heads down and continued hurriedly with the task at hand.
Meanwhile, our company officer put his arm around the chap’s shoulder and guided him in another direction. The whole time, the officer spoke with him in a calm, steady and determined voice, explaining that there were no fires in the area at the moment, but if there were, he and his crew were ready to respond immediately. The officer then informed the neighbor that although the vehicle happened to belong to a department member, the fire department regularly performed this kind of service for the citizens of our community. He also described a few other services we provide, such as stopping water leaks, unclogging drains, fixing electrical problems and gaining access to homes and vehicles for people who accidentally lock themselves out.
The officer further noticed that the man had a dog, so he mentioned that the department purchases dog biscuits for all the furry, four-legged neighbors that pass by the firehouse (which he then invited the man to do). Then he mentioned that we’ve rescued animals from all kinds of situations, including when their paws stuck in sidewalk gratings, when they get trapped in small spaces or when their leashes become became dangerously intertwined with obstacles. In short, our officer is a genius.
I don’t know if the neighbor bought it at all, but there was truth in what the officer was saying that even the man couldn’t argue with (although he probably won’t be happy about his tax dollars until he’s the one who needs non-emergency assistance).
Out In the Open
Both in my career and my volunteer fire department life, I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of hiding from the public. In fact, I always liked the idea of training out in the open where the public can see us. As long as we keep the public and members safe while we’re performing these maneuvers, it’s an opportunity to engage and educate the public about what we do. Plus, explaining the tools and equipment we use and the apparatus we operate at emergency scenes is a drill in itself. How well you can explain the operations of a piece of equipment to an untrained bystander is a sign of how well-trained you are on the equipment.
One progressive department I worked in taught me a lot with respect to public service and community outreach. Every tour, the members were required to perform at least one hour of physical training. There were times when we’d go to a neighborhood park and run a mile and a half or more, then we’d visit a local school to play a bit of basketball or volleyball, and then we’d hit a public pool for a couple of laps or an impromptu water-rescue drill. But all that time, we were in service and monitoring the radio. We wore department-issued running shorts, T-shirts and sneakers, but we carried coveralls with us in case we received a call—all in the name of firefighter fitness.
Now, would this work in a larger metropolitan like New York City? Probably not, at least not if it was done by individual companies, because it might be perceived as theft of services or malingering on the job. So why did it work for the other department? The answer: Public education. An aggressive campaign that painted our activities as “a way of keeping your firefighters fit for duty” was a masterpiece of PIO success.
I’ve also seen departments display signs (free-standing or posted via magnets to the apparatus) stating something to the affect of “Firefighters in Training” or “Fire Department Drill in Progress.” For a brief time, one of my departments piloted such a program that included the use of collapsible signs similar to the diamond-shaped “Men at Work” or “Road Workers Ahead” signs used by the road construction industry.
How, When & Where?
No matter what method you employ, the desired outcome is still the same: to ensure that the public’s perception of their local fire department is positive. So don’t be afraid to get out into the community, engage the public and let them see you. How? Allow someone to try on our bunker gear (and perhaps an SCBA and a tool) while supported by a member. It may be a pretty eye-opening experience for the individual, as long as they’re strong enough and physically fit to participate. Note: Avoid putting fire helmets on youngsters, as the weight and size may cause injury to their necks.
Another opportunity to talk with our neighbors, customers, etc., occurs in the supermarket. They know that we cook, but do they know who pays for it? It’s amazing how many of them think that their tax dollars, rather than our own dollars, pay for our meals. Do they also know that we clean our firehouses, do the laundry, wash the windows, perform fire safety and building inspections, and enforce local laws, all in addition to responding to emergencies?
And if/when the opportunity presents itself, ask about what they expect when we respond to fires and emergencies in their homes or places of employment. Specifically, ask if they expect us to give our lives to save their life and/or property. The answers may surprise you (but that’s fodder for another article).
The bottom line: Figuring out how, when and where to get out into your community may take some thinking and planning on your part, but failing to provide the public with a better understanding of what we do could hurt your department both in the long-term (when election time rolls around) and in the short-term (when they see the rig parked near the local grocery store on a lazy summer day).
Although it’s great to get out and interact with community members, safety comes first. Don’t allow members to show off or lose sight of what it is that they’re training to accomplish. For example, allowing unrestrained firefighters or civilians to ride a tower ladder bucket would be unacceptable. Likewise, horseplay must be kept to a bare minimum or not allowed at all. The slightest distraction, lack of professionalism or a lack of attention to safety measures can lead to disastrous results.
Stay safe and train for life.
Comment Now: Post Your Thoughts & Comments on This Story