Five Ways Fire Departments Can Partner with the Community
By James McLaughlin, alumnus, Emergency & Disaster Management, American Public University
Other than an emergency situation, one of the few times the community interacts with its fire department is at city or town council meetings during budget season. During these meetings, the fire department is often making requests for equipment and apparatus purchases, discussing code enforcement issues or addressing citizen complaints.
While these meetings often deliver important information to the community, the level of transparency remains limited to certain city officials and the few community members in attendance. Such public meetings do not enable a department to reach the majority of residents; it is therefore imperative that leaders of the fire service work to be more visible on a daily basis as a true partner with the community.
Fire Departments Need to Share Information Beyond Meetings
It’s important for fire chiefs to make an effort to share information about the department’s activities. Data, such as the volume of calls, types of calls and services performed, promote the value of a fire department. Fire departments should make this information more accessible to members of the community, whether through direct mailings or postings on a website.
Follow Up after an Emergency
Firefighters are great at responding to almost any possible emergency situation, but are not very good at engagement after the emergency is over.
For example, if a small business owner has a fire and is out of business for a period of time, the results could be devastating for both the owner and the community. Can the fire department be more proactive once the fire is out to coordinate with other city agencies to help reduce the amount of time the business is closed?
In my opinion, a fire department representative should be assigned to the business owner until the business is back to normal operations. This representative can be a liaison with other city departments to ease the burden for the owner. This is just a small example of how fire departments can think outside the box to provide value to their communities.
Be Active in Community Organizations
One of my goals as a leader in the fire service was to join a few local community organizations, including the chamber of commerce and rotary club. I know having a seat at the table among local community leaders is essential to promote my department. Too many members of the community have a narrow view of fire departments and do not understand the all-hazards services that fire departments offer such as EMS, marine response, confined space response and hazardous materials response.
As a fire leader, make a commitment to have regular interaction with community members, business leaders and political figures to promote the services and value of your department.
Get Involved in Schools
Statistics have shown that fifth graders are the best-aged children for education in fire safety and, more importantly, for initiating a conversation at home about fire prevention. Children are a great resource to deliver important safety messages to families.
Presentations to high school students can also be effective, especially before prom season. A well-done reenactment of a serious accident with the use of the “jaws of life” can have a serious impact on the decisions that students make involving drinking and driving. The police department and local theatre students can help create a realistic scene that will influence students now as well as throughout their lifetimes.
Reach out to the Elderly
Getting out into the community rooms of elderly housing complexes is a win for both injury prevention and community interaction. I have had several conversations with our department’s EMS coordinator about instituting a slip-and-fall prevention program. Not only are these types of calls extremely common, but they often progress into more serious medical conditions due to the age of the patient. Such an educational prevention program is a great opportunity to engage with these important, but often left out, members of the community.
Make Time by Sharing the Load
A hurdle to implementing any of these programs is carving out time to engage with the community. You can lighten the load by dividing the task equally among all shifts. Chiefs must be the ones to make the commitment to the community before they can expect firefighters to do the same. It all has to start at the top!
Departments that think outside the box and make a true effort to engage the community will have the support of the community when tough decisions have to be made about funding and other issues that impact the well-being of a department. Departments that just rely on emergency response as their sole interaction with the community may not fare well when cuts have to be made to the city budgets. If there is a true effort by a fire department to make a real, positive difference in a community, the community will be there to support its fire department.
About the Author: James McLaughlin has been in fire services since 1988. He has a B.S. in Fire Safety from Providence College and a M.A. in Emergency & Disaster Management from American Public University. He has numerous training experiences, including the National Fire Academy, as well as a fellowship at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Professional affiliations include the International Association of Fire Chiefs, New England Association of Fire Chiefs and the International Association of Firefighters. He is currently the Fire & Emergency Management Education Coordinator at American Military University.