10 Tips For Fostering Community Partnerships

Since 1990, I have had the privilege to work on a number of technology initiatives, emergency service websites and other fire service projects. In this column I will explain how "community partnerships" helped to make these technology projects, websites and general programs become successful.

On the Internet side, the first community partnership occurred between the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department with the University of Virginia. In 1994, there was no access to the Internet and very few people in the area were using the Internet to any real extent. Interest was stimulated by the need for information available from weather services on the web, which provided critical information regarding hurricanes. That stimulated the interest of the fire department administration to seek a resource that could provide Internet access.

In the beginning, the Internet was used primarily by education institutions for research and through a positive working relationship with the University of Virginia Department of Environmental Health and Safety, the fire department was provided with access to the University dial-in service to the Internet. They also provided two e-mail accounts that the fire department could use to communicate to anyone in the world.

  • Tip 1 - Learn what resources are available from your higher education schools and seek their assistance.

The next area involves the Charlottesville Fire Department's website, www.cfdonline.org. In the beginning, like most fire departments, Charlottesville had little understanding or appreciation of the information medium that was about to unfold. In addition, it did not have in-house personnel with any knowledge of how to develop a website. This is where a community partnership becomes the "cornerstone" of our website success.

Having little knowledge, assistance was sought from a local service provider (Cornerstone Networks - www.cstone.net). Not only did the people there provide access to the web with free Internet accounts, they also provided free web hosting and a home for our website.

But it didn't stop there. They created a fire department guestbook that has logged hundreds of comments from visitors, helped set up interactive features to allow for citizen input and requests, and set up a Real Audio Server that provides live fire department radio transmissions over the web - all at no cost!

  • Tip 2 - Research what your local Internet service providers (ISPs) may provide in the way of a community service. Many times, it's FREE!

Today, the Charlottesville Fire Department enjoys having one of the most popular fire department websites in the world, but it is because of some other exciting features that were provided by a third community partnership with a local company called Realitysmith (www.realitysmith.com). This company designs panoramic views, develops Quicktime movies and creates virtual reality models for the Internet. While attending a technology-related presentation, Realitysmith owner Joel Smith offered to develop some unique applications for the Charlottesville Fire Department website. His comment was, "I've always wanted to do something for the fire department - for that reason, and for a ride on a fire truck, I'll do it." Since that meeting, Joel has developed a virtual fire engine, the only interactive virtual reality thermal image camera on the Internet, and the most recent, a virtual station tour - all for a ride on a fire truck!

  • Tip 3 - Discover what technology companies are in your community and ask how they can be a part of your website or help with other technology initiatives. You'll be surprised by the enthusiastic reception.
  • Tip 4 - Use your fire department's community status to encourage corporate involvement by recognizing their contributions.

The acquisition of thermal imaging cameras is one shining example where community partnerships can and do make a big difference. When thermal imaging cameras first came on the market, prices were much higher and funding was insufficient to purchase one.

This is where the next community partnership comes into play. The Charlottesville Fire Department has an excellent relationship with members of the local volunteer rescue squad, the Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad (www.carsrescue.org); when the topic of thermal imaging cameras was brought to their attention, they truly came to our rescue. The rescue squad provided the remaining funds needed to purchase the first thermal imaging camera.

Within six months, the camera was directly responsible for the saving of the life of a 43-year-old man who became trapped in a structure fire. By the following year, the fire department had received additional money from the City of Charlottesville to equip every in-service unit with a thermal imaging camera, becoming one of the first and few departments in the country to do so.

In the neighboring community of Scottsville, the volunteer fire department created a similar community partnership with the Uniroyal Plant and the local Chamber of Commerce through which they were able to fund the purchase of a thermal imaging camera. The same was true in Albemarle County, where the Seminole Trail Volunteer Fire Department (www.stvfd.org) partnered with Wal-Mart to fund a thermal imaging camera.

Taking the time to involve community agencies and companies and to promote such events and partnerships with the news media is a win-win situation.

Opticom is another exciting technology partnership that enabled emergency units to effectively control traffic signals and allow safe passage through busy intersections. The City of Charlottesville's Public Works Traffic Division became an ally and champion for this proactive system. The traffic division's support has ultimately resulted in an improvement for the safety of the community. Coupled with the City Council's support of technology projects, over $100,000 was set aside for the traffic control network. In the next year, most city intersections will be equipped with the traffic-control devices.

In the area of vehicles, the East Rivanna Volunteer Fire Company (www.ervfc.com) and the Earlysville Volunteer Fire Department created a community partnership with Virginia Power. They were able to acquire vehicles (at no cost) from Virginia Power that were being replaced. In East Rivanna's case, the fire department received a vehicle that is being used as an EMS first-responder unit; Earlysville uses its vehicle as a hazardous materials unit.

Charlottesville also established a community partnership with its local Elks Lodge. The lodge provided half of the funding for the fire department's Fire Safety House, which is used to teach children survival skills when a fire occurs in the home. To acknowledge their contribution, the Elks logo is displayed on the fire safety trailer, giving high visibility to the partnership. Another invaluable partnership evolved with the Charlottesville Professional Firefighters Association (IAFF Local 2363, www.cpffa.org). The professional firefighters provided funding for a hazmat unit and a tactical firefighting training trailer.

In other areas of the country, there are many stories of how fire departments and emergency service agencies have tapped local resources. Many localities have told how they have benefitted by the larger more well-known corporations that reside in their communities.

The key in taking advantage of technology assets in your community is to become involved in technology associations or involved with those technology companies. Departments can only use those resources of which they are aware. Many corporations have written within their missions to be a contributing member of the community. Getting companies to move in the direction of your fire department can be done in some very simple and creative ways.

  • Tip 5 - Create a media event to demonstrate and to promote corporate involvement.
  • Tip 6 - Recognize the agency, organization or corporation with a "Community Partnership" award.
  • Tip 7 - Recognize key individuals by applying "honorary" status as a member or chief.
  • Tip 8 - Invite company representatives to a firehouse lunch.
  • Tip 9 - Allow company representatives to "ride-along" on fire apparatus.
  • Tip 10 - Don't be afraid to ask. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

These community resources are plentiful and should be considered fruits that are ready for harvest. However, before anyone can benefit, agencies must learn where the fields of these fruits are located.

This column is about fire and emergency service technology successes from around the country. If you have such a technology success, let me know. You can send your submissions to me on e-mail at cwerner@firehouse.com or mail directly to Deputy Chief Charles Werner, Charlottesville Fire Department, 203 Ridge St., Charlottesville VA 22902.

Charles Werner, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 23-year veteran and deputy chief of the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. He serves as the technology chair for the State Fire Chiefs Association of Virginia and is a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Communications/Technology Task Force. Werner also is webmaster for the National Fire Service Incident Management Consortium and a member of the Firehouse.com web team.