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They Just Don’t Understand. Communicating our need to the community and elected officials

Ask your self, “why do we, the fire and emergency medical services exist?”  If you are like most of us, your answer will be something like, “to respond to calls to make the community safer and to save lives.”  You aren’t wrong, but the question you should be asking is, “why does the community want us to exist?”.  That answer is a little different and it is one that we need to answer if we want to communicate our needs in meeting their expectations. 

The reality is that communities create and support fire and EMS departments to improve their quality of life by addressing the health and safety of the community.  The number of incidents we respond to isn’t the important metric.  How we contribute to improving quality of life is.  What that means is that when we communicate what we do, what are needs are, and why we need support, we need to address how we are achieving that goal or what we need to achieve it.

Our compatriots in law enforcement are able to easily tie their activities to their quality-of-life mission a little easier.  Right or wrong, when they report crimes, the listener (policy makers and/or community members) sees a direct tie in to them and their families.  When they make an arrest, they see themselves as the next victim and that law enforcement just acted to protect them and their families.   So, even though the incidence of crime, when measured per capita, has been dropping for years, policymakers and community members perceive that crime continues to rise.  When we report on fires or EMS calls, they don’t see themselves as the next call for service.  So, we need to communicate differently.

  1. Relate incidents to the individual. 

While every home has the potential for fire, we need to emphasize that the actions we take save lives and impact not only the fire victim but the larger community.   We need to address the fire and cause along with methods to prevent them, but also the impact of our actions on the greater community.  Our actions improve property values by limiting damage, limit the release of airborne contaminants that can trigger asthma and other respiratory ailments, and limit the amount of toxins that enter the environment. 

For example, when reporting a response to a hazardous materials incident from a car v. gasoline tanker truck, our report can look like this:

The Anytown Fire Department responded to a motor vehicle crash involving a car that struck a gasoline tanker truck.  There were minor injuries, but approximately 500 gallons of gasoline spilled on the ground.  The leak was stopped, and the fuel cleaned up.

Or:

The Anytown Fire Department responded to a fuel spill as the result of a motor vehicle crash involving a car and gasoline tank truck.  Three minor injuries were treated on scene by department personnel.  Approximately 500 gallons of fuel was spilled before the leak was stopped.  This action prevented nearly 7,500 gallons of hazardous chemical from entering the watershed of the great creek and the water table, which may have impacted the drinking water of approximately 500 homes.  The spilled fuel was cleaned up, preventing further damage to the road surface and seepage into the nearby ground. 

 

If you lived in this community, can you tell what the impact of supporting the fire department has on you and your family from how you communicate your actions?

  1. Tie the community’s needs and expectations to what you are doing. 

When you are requesting funding, there should be a direct link to what the community expects.  For example, if you are seeking capital funding for a new apparatus of service, you aren’t seeking funding to “purchase new equipment”, you are seeking funding to “enhance response capabilities to improve community safety”. 

 

  1. Regularly report what you are doing, why, and the impact.

As mentioned before, when we report what we do, community members and policymakers view incidents as isolated events.  It is up to us to describe the global impact and to make each incident personal.  Fire damages impact property values and the tax base.  Special operations, such as hazardous materials and water rescue, are lower frequency incidents, but their impact is much greater than just the incident site.  Community Risk Reduction activities are cost effective methods for reducing risk and have a direct impact on taxes needed to provide for the needs of the community. 

 

  1. Make sure that all of your members can speak to what you are doing and why.

Line staff are in constant contact with community members.  They are the ones who are approached in grocery stores and on the street.  They are your departments ambassadors to the community.  They need to be well versed in the why of the mission and the impact that their activities make and they need to be able to communicate this quickly and effectively. 

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