Speak Up 8/12: The Public Side of Public Safety

I have been reading Firehouse® Magazine for several years. I enjoy the diversity of articles and features the magazine offers. I find that I can always find a new aspect of firefighting to consider after reading and rereading a copy of Firehouse®.

I had an experience not long ago in which I went on a BLS (basic life support) ambulance call for a patient not far away. Another EMT and I happened to be at the station talking when the tones dropped. We had about a one-minute response time.

After returning from the call, I was speaking with the assistant fire chief. He advised that he had been speaking to the occupants of the home we responded to and that they had expressed concern for getting an ambulance in a timely manner.

It struck me that our outreach is non-existent. Obviously, we can’t go around talking about private information in violation of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) privacy rules, but we certainly could do better, not only as my department, but as a national and global fire service to demonstrate all that we do for the public good. I feel that most communities are thankful for the fire service, but may not be as aware of our role as they could be with moderate effort on our part.


Looking to us as leaders

The fire service, arguably more than any other discipline of emergency management, is looked upon as the leader in a community when a disaster strikes. Regardless of the type of incident or its origin, local fire companies everywhere answer the charge to render aid in situations of all kinds. Although I’m sure many firefighters have been in a situation where a patient, an injured party or disaster victim has become angry and directed frustration at fire personnel, I would also say that the other 99% of the time, we are a welcome sight for a person or family in real distress, but do they realize it?

You read that correctly. Do the people who called you to their house fire realize that you are not only willing to help, but also trained in fire suppression, medical treatment, public safety, evacuation procedures, property salvage and mental health and emotional support? I’m saying no. I say they call because you are the fire department and all they realize is that they have a fire.

Today’s fire service is so much more than just “putting the wet stuff on the red stuff.” We are an evolving, professional, cross-trained group of persons who can do a variety of highly critical and specialized tasks. It’s about time we realize just because we know our capabilities doesn’t mean the general public does as well. This is the case for just how important it is that we tell them.


We did a great job, but nobody knows it

My rural volunteer department very recently brought together the fire and EMS divisions to attend landing-zone training by a local air ambulance provider. Less than a week later, I personally called in two helicopters during a very serious car-versus-tree collision with four persons entrapped – the first time our department has used air transport. Six separate agencies responded, including local, county and state police, fire-EMS, a county rescue squad and a local air ambulance service that provided the helicopters. The car struck a very large oak tree head on after having missed a jogger in the road. We experienced an estimated 35-minute extrication to remove all four occupants. Extrication required the removal of multiple doors on the vehicle, as well as a complete pillar-up roof removal, and the removal of the backs of both front seats for rear patient access. We remained on scene for about three hours before the vehicle was released to the tow service operator.

We brought in ALS (advanced life support) ground ambulances, established landing zones and landed the two air units simultaneously, coordinated with local, county and state police and the county rescue squad to save these people – but nobody else knows it. No one knows what a great job every single person did at that scene to help save lives.


Getting our message out to the public

Many departments, particularly rural volunteer departments like mine, may or may not have a policy dealing with media requests or press releases, but we all should. Providing timely and accurate information regarding a response, without violating any legal or moral aspects of confidentiality, are critical tools to let our communities know that not only are we still alive and well, but that we can handle difficult situations with a positive outcome.

Consider the implications of an effective outreach program in your community:

• Public trust – Why do the citizens of our jurisdictions trust us to respond to their homes and care for their families? Is it because they know we have great response times, specialized training or equipment or practice regularly to deal with exactly their kind of situation? Absolutely not, but they should – in fact, those are exactly the reasons that the public should trust their fire department. We all train to stay sharp with basic skills, new tools and technologies and the hypothetical “what-if” scenarios, but we must also let our citizens know that we are working for them, even when they don’t see it.

• Rumor mill – The morning after the bad wreck, I heard various stories – there were more patients, fewer patients, fatalities, a 30-minute response time for the fire department, etc. Even though a fatal car accident isn’t a fire or EMS agency’s fault, it would sure impress me more if I heard people talking about how quickly we made the determination to bring in air transport resources, how efficiently our fire crew worked with the county rescue squad to extricate the patients, and how our quick and thorough decisions and actions caused every patient in that car to leave the scene alive.

• Community support – Having a fire department that is engaged within the community means the community will be engaged within the fire department. This may lead to an increased interest in membership in a department that is experiencing low roster numbers. The community may be more willing to support association fundraisers or even a proposed tax levy increase if the department has been engaged with the community and can show the support of citizens.


Fostering a bond with the community

Taking the time to draft a press release or respond to a media inquiry is an important function of our roles as stewards of the public trust. Relaying accurate information on a routine basis can serve to dispel negative rumors about a department’s activities. It can help convey the level of training and expertise personnel have that makes them better serve the community.

Keeping the public informed also creates a bond within a community so that when the department must rapidly disseminate information regarding a hazard or order an evacuation, not only will local media contacts be in place to help with the information flow process, but more importantly the community will be more likely to take heed of what we are telling them. They will know we aren’t just a fire department; we are professionals who train and prepare for exactly these kinds of situations, and we are here to help.

Matt Forcum


Stewardson Fire & Ambulance Protection District

Stewardson, IL



Credit was missing from a photo on page 93 of the May issue. The photographer is Jay K. Bradish/IFPA.