How to stifle firefighter haters

They come off as village idiots, screaming and raging at firefighters; in reality they are simply ignorant … of what we do

A resident angrily confronts a crew grocery shopping in California. A county commissioner in Florida publicly complains about fire crews at the Winn-Dixie less than a mile from their station. In Ohio, firefighters are regularly criticized for buying food while on duty.

What is going on here?

There are a number of lessons to be learned from these types of confrontations, especially in how firefighters might defuse conflict and maintain professionalism through such encounters.

But there is a bigger issue here and it is this: Most people in the general public have no idea what firefighters really do. And that is a serious problem.

They don't know that firefighters might be working 24- or 48-hour shifts. They don't know that volunteer firefighters have other full-time jobs. They don't understand why firefighters respond to medical calls.

They don't know the difference between offensive and defensive firefighting. They may not even know which fire department is their primary response agency, what type of department that is or what essential services it provides.

And, obviously, some don't understand why it takes a fire truck full of firefighters to shop for groceries.

A big misunderstanding
To some degree, this ignorance is understandable. Most people have never had the need to call the fire department for an emergency, and most people do not personally know any firefighters.

Firefighters on TV are portrayed as brave men with a lot of personal issues who often freelance on emergency scenes and don't seem to work any set schedule. The media sometimes concludes that firefighters putting master streams on a fire are doing a better job than those who drag a hoseline into the building.

And of course they always say that firefighters use oxygen tanks to breathe.

The lack of good information that many people have about the fire service generally and their own fire departments in particular is a big problem for firefighters.

When people don't understand a service they have, they may not fully value it. And they may make incorrect and damaging assumptions based on their ignorance, as is demonstrated in the past grocery shopping confrontations.

Public schooling
So what can firefighters do to improve this situation? They can work to educate the public about who they are and what they do.

This education can take place in a number of ways. Firefighters should always be willing to patiently explain something that a member of the public does not understand, such as why firefighters buy groceries on duty or why fire trucks respond to medical calls. They should welcome such informal conversations rather than feeling defensive about them.

But it is not enough to respectfully answer an occasional question.

Most people are not going to ask the question, but may still draw conclusions based on incomplete information. Fire departments must be proactive to build the community support they need.

Routine public education programs are a good place to start. In addition to talking about services provided and fire safety, include information about what a typical firefighter's day is like. This type of information can be adapted for children as young as preschoolers all the way up to adult groups.

Engaging experience
Consider citizen academies, ride-along programs or both. Many law enforcement agencies have such programs.

Adult members of the community attend classes given by department members, learn skills and have the opportunity to experience first-hand some aspects of the job.

Those who participate in such programs usually come away with a greater appreciation of their public safety providers and can become huge allies in future efforts to improve the department.

Explorer and cadet programs are a great way to get teenagers and young adults involved as well. These programs not only provide greater involvement and information for community members, but are often terrific recruiting tools as well.

Sponsoring or participating in public events is a good way to get information to a lot of people in a short period of time. Try to choose events that allow for one-on-one conversation and emphasize professional services rather than social activities.

Mass communication
Finally, use the media to your advantage. Many fire departments have an adversarial relationship with the media or have had a bad experience in the past. As a result, they choose to avoid media contact.

But this does not serve anyone's interests.

The media is looking for a story, and firefighters have a story to tell. Many writers would jump at the chance to do a full shift ride-along for the purpose of writing a feature story. Make sure the writer is assigned with a busy crew that can share their experience in a professional way.

Some residents get upset when they see firefighters in the grocery store because they don't know that firefighters are on duty for up to 48 hours, or that they usually share meals, or that the grocery store is in their district and the fire crew is on duty no matter where they are during their shift.

These individuals get upset because they don't have the information they need to make a better judgment. So help them to understand better by being good ambassadors for your fire department and the fire service generally. 

Welcome inquiries. Explain things patiently. Don't get defensive or indignant.

It may be the hundredth time you've been asked why the fire department responds to routine medical calls, but for the person asking, it is the first time. Be patient, be informative, and never forget that such encounters are part of the essential service you provide.

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