Ask any of the hundreds of firefighters who have entered our trade over the past 5 years who the number one priority is during emergency operations. I bet they tell you it is them. Ask them who comes next. It will likely be their crew. I would also be willing to bet they will list the victims in 3rd; still a podium position but not by much. Now ask yourself what is wrong with this picture?
When I came into the fire service 10 years ago it was a transitional period in firefighting culture just as it was in society. I fall between two very distinct generations for both. Fortunately, I was indoctrinated in our craft by a lot of old skool firemen who had served their community, as well as their country, for decades before I came along. The main thing that generation taught me was the importance of serving the community. Fast forward to today and we have recruits coming out of the fire academy telling everyone they come first as their safety is paramount to anything else that happens on any incident scene. The really unfortunate part of all of this is MY generation and the older generations are the ones teaching them this crap! If only it was that black and white!
I believe it is pretty simple, if you want the community to invest in your department than you must put them first! Somewhere along our quest to reduce the number of line of duty deaths we began teaching and justifying putting our safety above the victims and that is just plain wrong. None of us should be going on suicide missions but rather we should be smart, well trained, aggressive firefighters who will search every survivable space possible. We must also be proficient in the delivery of EMS, rescue, HazMat, and whatever other endeavors your department took on to justify its existence when the percentage of fires decreased. I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that we became so good at fire prevention and codes that we felt taking on other roles would make us more justifiable than our track record, but that is a topic for another day.
It is not uncommon to hear people suggest that their community just doesn’t get it. Sadly there are communities that literally do not support their fire department. How could this be? Well, perhaps you first need to look at what you, your company, and your department does to instill trust and support from your citizens. I firmly believe that the community would rather see its firefighters out and about doing things rather than see their million dollar fire engines parked in their multi-million dollar firehouses 24/7! I have been told I am wrong about this but I fail to accept that. If the citizens are willing to invest that type of money in a service, especially one they hopefully never need to use, they at least want to see some return on their investment.
So how can you give them a return without directly providing them the service of emergency
mitigation? GET OUT AND INTERACT WITH THEM! Take your crew to the grocery store each tour and meet people who live and work in your coverage area. Don’t act like parolees; take the time to have a dialogue with your citizens because they will almost ALWAYS ask questions about you and the department. You would be surprised how many don’t realize our tour schedule, if we are career/volunteer, that we do more than fight fires, or even that we pay for our groceries with our own money! This are all questions I have been asked personally why at the store. This is a great time to educate the community or even assist them with loading groceries, pumping gas, or anything else that may come up. The little stuff matters when it comes to community relations!
Always keep PR materials on your apparatus. Pamphlets, smoke detectors, and stuff for the kids are always useful, especially when you are out interacting with your customers. That big red fire engine we call our office seems to have its own gravitational pull with our citizens, especially the younger ones. I think I have done more fire safety education and PR from random visits to local businesses than I ever have from scheduled events. None of which would have occurred if we are parked in the engine bay all day!
Take your crew training in public places; the citizens are usually amazed to see the things we can do. Find public locations such as schools, parks, etc. where you will not be trespassing and pull some lines or throw some ladders. Educate the public about why we train so much and how utilizing different training locations better prepares us for any situation we may encounter. I bet they will listen and even thank you for your hard work.
The perception of your crew and your department is what you make of it. Understand that you will NEVER please everyone. There is always going to be someone who doesn’t think we should be at the store, out of the station, or training on school property. Respectfully accept their criticism and continue with whatever activity you are working on. At the end of the day you are going to do more good than harm. Go the extra mile to assist the public in both emergency and non-emergency situations. Check on broke down vehicles, changes tires, play basketball or football with the neighborhood kids, and wave to everyone you pass as your ride around in the rig. Life is so much easier with a community that supports us!
Make sure everyone on your crew understands that our customers, the citizens, will ALWAYS come FIRST! They pay for your salary, equipment, stations, and apparatus. They are invested in us and we owe it to them to be invested in them! If don't agree perhaps there is another division of the government you can lateral to or another occupation you have been looking for a reason to start. To say you come first goes against every oath and ethos I have ever seen related to our trade. Frankly, it is just purely unacceptable and not an attitude I want on my crew. So please, go put yourself first somewhere else while the rest of us get back to SERVING our community!