Talking with People: Yes, It's That Easy

Current economic difficulties are negatively impacting the fire service in many ways. Today, governmental managers can do things to the fire service that five or 10 years ago would have been unthinkable – publicly questioning and even attacking fire department budgets and in some cases even swaying public opinion against the fire service.

Can you blame the citizens? They are economically paralyzed with fear. Anyone who fears for their family’s safety will attack anything to protect them. It goes back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; when a person’s basic physiologic needs – food, water, shelter – are not satisfied or are threatened, that person will do anything to survive. Today, this could include letting cuts be made to their local fire stations and departments. They don’t see fire, or even injury, as a threat to their physiological needs because they perceive that it will never happen to them.

Who is to blame for this? We are. For far too long, we have sat behind our station doors and we have been the quiet, modest heroes who innocently boast, “No big deal, ma’am/sir, just routine and doing my job,” for so long that our public does not fear fire. They fear terrorism, they fear natural disasters, they fear crime and they fear losing their jobs, their ability to pay for their homes and their ability to provide for their families. But they do not fear fire.

For the record, I fully support NFPA 1710 and 1720, the standards that cover the organization and deployment of career and volunteer fire department resources. I believe in strong staffing because we will always have fires, and I believe in strong training programs because our firefighters must be safe, efficient and modernized when those flames do spark. I am in no way suggesting taking anything away from suppression and operations. I am suggesting that we do the most with what our departments have and continue to increase our prevention programs, even in this difficult financial time; while at the same time showing the value we provide to our communities every day.

“Management by spreadsheet”

“How can you prove what you have prevented if it never happened?” is a question prevention firefighters have been asking for years. But now, as the bean counters examine our budgets, the economic situation has produced another element – “management by spreadsheet.” Numbers on a government document supposedly tell government officials where efficiency and waste are present, what programs need to be expanded or reduced and what needs to be eliminated. In many places, one target is people they perceive as expendable “administrative” personnel – including prevention staff.

In response to “management by spreadsheet” and related economic justifications, key terms have come into the fire prevention/public education arena, such as “process objectives,” “impact studies,” “quantitative and qualitative measurements,” “responding variables” or “formulation of a testable hypothesis.” These are all good tools and methods if you have the resources and budget to perform them. I am not attempting to marginalize or discourage any statistical or scientific approach to prevention. However, 79% of our nation’s fire departments are volunteer and most probably do not have the resources to conduct detailed studies and evaluations, and I believe most of the others have one- or two-person prevention “divisions” that barely have enough time to conduct programs let alone conduct any in-depth analysis while at the same time trying to keep their programs relevant, effective and interesting.

For these departments that do not have the time, resources or even the knowledge to conduct these studies, here’s a little secret: While those studies and evaluations are useful and can help, they are not needed for a successful prevention program. You want an evaluation? How about a steady decrease in fires, accidental injuries or other community hazards you have been addressing since you “blindly and unscientifically” implemented your program? Just because no scientific or analytical process was used, does that mean your program cannot demonstrate a success or has no value?

There is no magic-bullet program in which “A” will result in “B” with “XYZ” cost per citizen. Different programs will affect different communities in different ways, and programs should be constantly evolving to meet changing community needs. Prevention is not a bottom-line number to be balanced against resources and immediate results. Prevention is an ongoing and dynamic process and it takes time to truly bring about permanent change; in fact, it can take a generation – for instance, when those first-graders you’re teaching now become parents themselves and continue the messages. Most successful fire educators will be long retired before the true results of their efforts are realized.

It’s all about people

Prevention and changing behaviors is not an elaborate process, and as Lee Levesque, a firefighter and public affairs officer for the Lady’s Island St. Helena Fire District in South Carolina, puts it, “It all comes down simply to people!” An effective prevention program does not require a convoluted process of study and evaluation. An effective prevention program does not require every firefighter to be a public presenter or have special training. All that would be nice and you should strive for that if you have the resources, but it is not required for success.

It’s about establishing relationships with those you serve. It comes down to having frequent conversations with these citizens based on an understanding and interest in their problems. It’s about having conversations with our neighbors about something we love, are experts in and can describe like no other – fire protection.

Here is an example of what I am talking about: You do an analytical study and analysis on your fire problem in order to develop an efficient, cost-effective prevention program. Let’s call it “prevention by spreadsheet.” The results of this study show that the largest number of fires are occurring in a particular neighborhood and are related to cooking. Further analysis shows that these fires are occurring in homes that do not have fire extinguishers. So your spreadsheet shows simply that if you increase cooking safety and fire extinguisher awareness in that neighborhood, you will reduce fires.

To solve the problem, you can base your outreach program on this analysis and bombard residents of that neighborhood with the cooking safety and fire extinguisher information because that’s what your spreadsheet tells you to do. You do “pre- and post-tests” to the very few residents you present to and they ace the tests. You now, in turn, think that you have demonstrated your program’s proposed success based on “X” amount of citizens reached, and the scores on the tests you gave them 15 minutes after your presentation shows they learned new information. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s an analytical success. But was it really a prevention success? Let’s look at Lee Levesque’s approach.

If your department approached prevention on a personal level by becoming involved with this community and having conversations with the residents on an intimate level, you would learn that many of them are single parents who are working two or more jobs just to pay their rent and provide food (Maslow’s first hierarchy of needs). They’re not concerned about having a fire; they are concerned with eviction and foreclosure, so if you just do what your analysis tells you to do, you will waste time and money presenting to people more worried about rent and food than what you have to say. Where do you think your message will fall on their list of priorities? You’re asking them to stop helping their children with homework or bathing them while they are cooking because of the distraction, and then telling them to spend the precious little money they have on a fire extinguisher they really don’t see a need for. To add to the quagmire, you are a stranger to them or – worse – a representative of the government who is telling them what’s good for them. To put it in simpler terms, who is more likely to have a positive effect on that single parent – a stranger or a friend?

Prevention success is based on getting involved with members of your community on a personal level. “Prevention by spreadsheet” eliminates people, and an effective prevention program that alters behaviors and attitudes must be all about people. They just don’t match.

Now, if you are doing “prevention by spreadsheet,” what about “pre- and post-tests” to determine whether knowledge was gained? To get any value out of such tests, some time would have to pass to see what the students retained. That would involve mailings, tracking people down, dealing with changes of address, getting the tests returned and graded and then transposing all the information to your spreadsheet. What happens to the rest of your outreach and prevention efforts while you’re in the office doing all the administrative tasks needed to create your spreadsheet?

Let’s start the conversation

If you have the resources and time to conduct formal studies, by all means do so, and then please share what you learn with the rest of us. If you do not have the resources and time, please know you can still conduct effective prevention programs. Just get people out of the station and into your target neighborhoods and start conversing.

How can you prove your success? I quote from a fellow National Fire Academy student who, when asked by an instructor, “How many fires did you prevent last year?” proudly answered, “All of them!” Spreadsheets can’t argue with that.


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DANIEL BYRNE is a firefighter/paramedic and the community support officer for the Burton, SC, Fire District and a paramedic for Beaufort County EMS. He is a National Fire Academy alumnus and has been conducting fire service public relations programs for over 17 years, with over 20 years in the emergency services. Byrne holds associate of science and bachelor of science degrees in fire science and is a Fire Instructor II. He has received state and local awards for educational programs and partnerships. Byrne is a former U.S. Marine Corps recruiter now serving with the Georgia Air National Guard Fire Protection Division. He may be contacted at