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...


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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?