Lately I believe that I have witnessed the development of a serious problem within the fire service. It seems to have taken on the nature of a disease. Many among us seem to be overly concerned with themselves to the exclusion of any consideration for the needs and concerns of others. This would seem to be an insidious disease that strikes the brain, rendering it incapable of looking outward for any sort of help. A second stage of the disease then appears to render people incapable of caring for anyone else.
It would be my suggestion that we recognize that each of us has a contract with the public. Whether it is written or not, we have at the very least created an implied contract to protect and defend our fellow citizens. Each of us signs this contract when we step forward to serve in the fire and emergency service field.
If we are to fulfill this contract we must remember that we have a deep and abiding obligation to consider these people and their feelings as a part of our emergent though processes. None of us exists solely for our own selfish needs. Once we step forward we must remember that we are expected to provide those critical infrastructure services.
I have written a great deal over the past several years about how the fire service needs to reach out beyond itself to win the support of the public. Many times during my career in the fire service I have wondered why more of our activities were not featured in the local media. I frequently encountered a brick wall of opposition; a stone wall of silence as it were, every time I sought permission to reach out to the community.
Each time I tried to place the services of our agency before the public eye, I found myself in trouble. It struck me as odd that we, as a public agency, were unwilling to speak up loudly and proudly tell the community how well we were laboring on their behalf.
Anyone who spoke of our busy fire load, outside of the confines of our closely, guarded firehouse world, was smacked heavily by the powers that be. We hid within the walls of our fire stations, waiting for the bell to ring. When the bells began to ring, we went forth to do battle with fire. I can recall a period of time early in 1979 when my engine company responded to a minimum of one working fire every shift (days and nights) from early January right through the spring thaw into late April. We saw a lot of the public, but we did not often interact with them.
To let you know how bad our relations with the public were, one of my interactions involved being knocked unconscious during a response one evening during that period. We were responding to a fire when I was suddenly struck on my right temple by a rock filled ice ball that had been hurled by a local citizen. It passed through the window of our pumper and smacked me on the side of the head. The trip to the fire and then to the hospital is still a bit hazy. But at least I was out there meeting and greeting the people.
To this very day, the City of Newark has not allowed a significant interaction to occur between its fire department and the citizens they are sworn to protect. I have a very strong feeling that the pressure on the Fire Director from city hall is quite strong. How can you hold yourself up year after year as the Renaissance City, if word of your on-going fire problems rarely sees the light of day in the media outlet?
Rather than using public examples of the dedicated service of a great many well-trained fire people to portray a valuable strength of local government, these people are kept as prisoners within the fire fortresses that dot the city?s landscape. What a waste!
In the meantime, the troops are whiling away their time away from the people they are sworn to protect, they also become further isolated from the people they need to meet. Because of the way they are forced to act by the city hall administration, they come to view the people the serve as the enemy.
I use this example, because it is far too typical of the fire service as a whole. I can think of a number of other fire departments that have grown inward. They have turned into local social clubs that are forced to occasionally perform fire-related tasks.
When there is an important event to celebrate, do they bring in the public to share their joy and give something back? Do they think expansively? No, they content themselves to invite a few fire service friends over, buy some chicken and beer, and then proceed to drink and listen to bands. I ask you, is that any way to do business?
I receive e-mail message after e-mail message telling me that I continually preach to the choir when I speak of matters like this. Well if that is the case my friends, this feedback tells me that the choir is singing badly out of tune, where it bothers to sing at all. I keep working to break the bonds and bounds of the fire service to reach the general public, but it is a very difficult task. And there is no way that I can do it all by my lonesome.
YOU FOLKS must make the decision. You must decide how best to reach out to the public in each and every city, town, township, village, and fire district that we serve. As a commissioner within the local fire district, I really have no official mandate to interact with local government. But does that fact stop me from meeting with the Mayor to discuss fire-related issues? Not on your life. I work hard to fit our plans within the overall environment in our community. If we build plans for our district that are out of synch with the community?s plans and interest, we thereby set the stage for future problems.
I was recently elected to my second full term on the Board of Fire Commissioners. I was elected Chairman of the Board in March and I am working to share my hopes and dreams for the district with people in each of the developments. I am responding to questions honestly, and attempting to share my vision for the future.
Each of you should be doing this sort of networking in your community. Whether you are running for elected office or not, you need to be building a support system out among the citizens in your community. Because there will come a time when you need their help. And I am willing to bet that they will be far less willing to come to the aid of a stranger.
I offer this week?s message to you in the same way that state and local government entities offer traffic control signs and devices to every citizen. Traffic signs and signals are an important part of life in a civilized community. They tell you when to stop and when to go. They let you know that there are bumps ahead, and well as warn of the impending disaster of a sharp curve or a narrow bridge.
However traffic signs are absolutely worthless if you pay them no heed. Just like the motorist who runs a stop sign, knowing the consequences, the reader who chooses to ignore my message does so at their own peril. Let me offer the following steps as an example of what you need to do in order to respond to my call for an outpouring of public relations efforts within the fire service throughout our country.
- You have to see the sign.
- You must then recognize that the sign or symbol applies to you.
- You have to act on that symbol.
People usually run stop signs because they fail to see them, or they see them too late to act. Many fire departments end up with massive budget cuts or shortfalls because they fail to look carefully at the world around them. They do not reach out to, and join various community groups. It is much easier to go to your local Elks club, Veterans of Foreign Wars post, community band, or church choir and ask your friends for help. Do not let the fire department be the sole thing that drives your life.
Once you have seen the stop sign, recognize that it applies to you. The same holds true for my public relations message. Far more people know about Smokey the Bear and forest fires than they do about how you and your friends protect their community. Information on your fire department and its services will not come to the public in a blinding flash on the road to Jerusalem. You have to get the word out.
You have to act on the clues that you receive in life. If the sign says stop, than you had darn well better hit the brakes on your vehicle. And if I am saying to you that you need to get the word out if you are to grow support among your community, then you had best be going to work on it. Begin to live your life on the outside of your fire stations.
What are some things that you can do? Can I ask you to do something, if I fail to provide some alternative courses of action?
- Become an active member in another organization.
- Become known as the local expert on fire protection.
- Come to be recognized as the go to guy or gal in your community.
- Draft an occasional missive to your mayor, council, state or federal legislator.
- Create a periodic letter to the editor in your local newspaper.
- And if you have the guts, step up to the plate and become a leader in your community. In this way, you can build the visibility of your fire department as you build your own reputation. At one time, the President of the Adelphia Fire Company was the Mayor of Howell Township. Before that, my late father-in-law was the Township Clerk, and the treasurer of the fire company.
- Write a weekly (monthly) column for your local news paper on fire-related matters.
These are a few of the things that you can do to bring the image of your local fire department to a new and higher level. If people come to know you and trust you, they will support you when the tough times come. Or at least that is how I have seen it work where someone took the time to do the legwork.
As I said earlier, you have to see the sign, think that it applies to you, and then act upon it. If you are to strengthen your contract with the people you have sworn to protect, you can do not less. The time has come to recognize and fulfill the contract you have with the people you protect and serve.