By: Retired Assistant Chief Michael Fronimos
Improving fire department public relations is one of the most important jobs fire chiefs do on an ongoing basis. Our relationship to our community and key decision-makers builds strong support for fire department initiatives. Further, it leads to a healthy, well-funded fire department capable of meeting all its community’s needs.
A successful fire department must always be focused on improving public relations. No matter if your department has excellent or poor public relations at any moment. Stay intentional about building positive perception.
We all know public sentiment is just one negative event away from pitchforks and torches. In general, for every negative event in the public’s sight, it takes five positive events to return public favor to the previous degree.
For this reason fire administrators must maintain a steady stream of activities that build positive public relations and trust. Building a schedule of consistent public-facing activities helps protect fire departments from the consequences of negative events.
Plus, it helps departments recover more quickly after a misstep. Building relationships with our customers, the public, ahead of time, as well as elected officials, the news media and other stakeholders pays dividends in the long run and helps lessen the blow of a negative situation.
There’s nothing like a shiny fire engine and a polite, friendly firefighter to turn heads at a local business. That natural curiosity about what we’re doing provides an opportunity to speak with the community. It also allows us the opportunity to educate and inform them about important initiatives within their fire department.
Before sending your personnel out to do any work, make sure they understand what they are doing and why it matters to citizens. That way, they will be prepared to explain it and improve your fire department’s public relations. You can equip them to be ambassadors for your fire department. Empower your people to be marketing agents.
By performing your department’s activities in proximity to the public, you create an opportunity for improving fire department public relations. People will ask questions, allowing your members to speak about what they are doing and why. When answering questions, make eye contact and keep your answers brief and positive.
When engaging with your citizens, spend more time listening than talking. Show compassion and empathy as you listen and respond to their questions. In addition, when you answer, always bring it back to your key message of caring for your citizens and community.
Whenever your people attend public functions, conduct pre-planning or public education events, perform fire hydrant maintenance or just go to grab groceries or a meal, make sure they know the importance of proper dress.
Personnel should all wear the same uniform. If your crew shows up wearing multiple different variations of “uniforms,” it actually makes you look unprofessional and less credible. If you dress the part and act the part, it boosts your image and increases the public’s confidence in their fire department. It exudes professionalism.
All fire officers know the value of a complete, accurate, up-to-date pre-incident plan for operations and ISO. Pre-plans help us be more efficient and make better tactical assignments during an incident. But do you know the value of pre-incident planning for improving fire department public relations?
To thoroughly complete or update a pre-incident plan, fire personnel must go out into the community. First, this means taking the engine or command vehicle out and turning heads to see where you are going. Anywhere you drive will naturally trigger curiosity and expose the public to fire department activity in the community.
Second, when you arrive at a business location, you will interact with the business owner and gain visibility to all employees, patrons, neighbors, and passers-by. This is especially true when you are completing the 360-walkaround and walking through the building taking photos.
An NFPA 1620 pre-incident plan should include A-B-C-D side exterior photos with annotations indicating hazards and key building features. For example, take photos of utility shutoffs, gates, fuel storage tanks, and anything else that could pose a risk to or aid first responders.
Third, as your personnel complete their pre-incident planning walkthrough, they can improve your fire department’s public relations by inviting conversation with any citizens present. By showing a willingness to talk about what you are doing and why, be open to questions.
Your personnel can also involve citizens in the pre-incident planning process by asking about the history of the building. Often building owners, employees, and neighbors know about hazards and building modifications which may not be immediately noticed.
Fourth, improve your fire department’s public relations by providing information about how pre-incident planning helps your community. By informing the public about the benefits of walking through their building, taking photos and notes, you will improve perception.
By providing written and digital materials, you reinforce the conversations you have with the public and give them an easy way to share it with others. This allows your positive impact to easily spread throughout your community.
Here is an example of a public-facing web page a fire department may use. The page may be customized for each department, or copied and pasted into the department’s own web page creation tools. You may also use it as a printable pdf.
Pre-incident planning isn’t a one-and-done activity. To maintain complete and up-to-date pre-incident plans, you need to walk through buildings every year. Because pre-planning is an ongoing process, so is its positive impact on public relations.
Every year when your personnel walk through buildings in your district, they show citizens they care. Every time they take new photos or update information, it reinforces the public perception of the fire department’s diligence and commitment to public safety.
Pre-incident planning has historically been a time-consuming and tedious project. As a result, many fire departments could not maintain complete and up-to-date pre-incident plans. However, modern technology now makes it possible to quickly and easily complete pre-incident plans in a fraction of the time it used to take.
Moreover, personnel can easily create and update the pre-incident plans in the field using mobile devices. This makes it possible for personnel to complete the tasks while interacting with the public instead of waiting until they get back to the station.
To start improving your fire department’s public relations through pre-incident planning, select a digital pre-planning program that is user-friendly and has a mobile application. This will allow your members to quickly and easily create pre-incident plans while interacting with the community.
I personally like FlowMSP’s program for this. When I was Assistant Chief at Wytheville Fire Rescue, our field personnel found the program to be convenient and user-friendly. No matter which program you use, get out there and start pre-planning. Everyone benefits from good pre-incident plans, and you can improve your fire department’s public relations along the way.
If you want to see how FlowMSP will work for your department, request a web demo. A team member from FlowMSP will give you a personal tour of how the program works and answer any questions you may have.
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