How to improve fire department visibility and convey relevance to the community
Employ visual cues, citizen education and engagement, and media to highlight department activities
Last year, I penned the article “Remaining a visible and relevant fire service” in which I discussed my difficulty finding a fire station in an affluent area of a major city. Even with the aid of a universal traffic sign, I had no clue that a fire station was in the neighborhood – no flagpole, no signs, not even the usual oversized driveway.
The point of that article: Unless we are visible to the public, how do we remain relevant in their minds? The article included a discussion of community paramedicine and outreach that could departments could employ to make us more visible to our citizens. Since then, I’ve been asked, “How do we become more visible?” and I wanted to offer a more in-depth set of ideas for how you can underscore your department’s relevance and improve visibility to your community.
Fire department visibility to our citizens
As citizens pass by, they should be able to identify the fire station that services their neighborhood. This was driven home the other day when I took my cell phone in for service, and the representative immediately saw that I was in the fire service and asked what station I worked at? When I said that I worked at fire headquarters, he not only knew that location but also added that he lived within a couple blocks of our Station 103.
Being visible is essential to keeping us relevant to our citizens. It not only shows them where we are located, but also reassures them that we are ready to respond to their emergency needs. How do we catch their attention?
First, is the familiar yellow traffic rectangle of a fire truck that is mandatory in most states to remind motorists that they are approaching a fire station. Sure, these may subconsciously become almost invisible, but they also provide those who are less familiar with the area a visual alert to be watchful for emergency vehicles.
If the station is on or near a major highway or intersection, many departments opt for a dedicated traffic control device, such as flashing yellow traffic signals or stop lights activated when there is a station response.
Visibility of the station may take several other forms. One idea is a dual-purpose sign that indicates the name or number of the fire station and serves as an official message board for the fire department, local government or community that can be used to promote an upcoming event, community involvement or your own CRR efforts. Whether electronic or manually lettered, these message boards should be changed regularly and can also display safety tips related to flooding, fireworks or seasonal messages.
Something as simple as a well-placed flagpole flying a crisp set of flags, a firefighter memorial or a striking landscape can set a fire station apart from other structures and make it more visible. Each of these, however, require dedicated upkeep or they will have the exact opposite effect and detract from the station’s appearance.
Fire departments support community involvement
In many neighborhoods, the fire station may be the only government structure within miles of a resident’s home and therefore the only place where they may come into contact with their local government. To citizens, it can be the place where they can come for advice on who can answer their local government questions ranging from where to pay their water bill to who can fix the potholes in their street or where can they apply for a building permit.
For that reason, the fire station – when in the process of being built or being renovated – should include a small reception area that is secure from the operations portion of the station, yet conducive for a citizen to wait while firefighters are getting them the information to help handle their request.
In smaller communities, the fire station is the hub of local government activity where everything from voting to council meetings or community events are held. While these might disrupt the normal operations a bit, they also provide an opportunity for citizens to see and briefly interact with the firefighters who are there to protect their community.
To further recognize their community or neighborhood, many fire stations, large or small, take on a symbolic name such as the “The Guardians of University Heights” to honor the citizens in their first response area, and proudly display that name on their apparatus or informal uniform shirts.
Educating citizens to show fire department relevance
Believing that an ordinary citizen understands all the roles that firefighters play in an emergency – from fire and EMS to hazmat and mass casualty incidents – places you and your department well behind the power curve. Many believe that we only fight fires and spend our time at the station playing checkers and petting our dog, Sparky, Smoky, Cinders or Ashes, while waiting for the next call. They often have no idea of the amount of training or continuing education that is required to keep up with our standards or recertification.
Our mission makes us the “all-hazard” responders to most every emergency on what, for most average citizens, is the worst day of their life. We are therefore not really relevant to these citizens unless we continually show them what we do. We must be responsible for educating them about our myriad responsibilities – and be on message, using a variety of media. How is this done?
Using the media to promote fire department relevance
In order to show our relevance to every citizen age group, we must use a variety of media. The most universal is the TV and radio outlets that serve our city or area. Do you have a public information officer (PIO) who actively promotes your department and the overall mission of the fire service? Do you send out periodic press releases on your activities related to live-burn to water rescue training, or when doing a neighborhood canvass, checking for defective or inoperable smoke alarms? Do you invite a reporter to take part and cover the story?
Does your city, township or county publish a periodic magazine or newsletter? If so, are you including an article from your department in every issue? It may be brief, such as a reminder for citizens to check their smoke detectors, or a detailed article about something or someone significant to your department. I saw this clearly demonstrated by the Fishers (Indiana) Fire Department when they published an article “Never Quit” in an issue of Fishers Magazine.
This article chronicles the perseverance of Lt. Branden Anderson and Firefighter/Paramedic Thomas Crafton as they overcame physical challenges to remaining or becoming Fishers firefighters. Read it, not only to see the article as an example of fire service relevance, but also to see their dedication to the fire service and their determination in the face of overwhelming odds.
Do you send out a press release after every major emergency or prior to a significant community event so that the media can mention or write about it, even if they can’t cover it in person?
If your department responds to a major incident, does your PIO or a chief fire officer have a place at every press conference to speak on the role of the fire service during that incident (i.e., the role of firefighter/paramedics, triage of victims, or the role of tactical medics in support of SWAT)?
Social media displays fire department activities
Does your department have a website and, if so, does it have interactive and up-to-date photos and links where a citizen can find contact information and leave a message or ask a question; see the location of your fire stations; find information, such as your budget and what it covers; or view your monthly emergency call statistics?
Does your PIO make a quick post on your Facebook page or Twitter, perhaps with a single photo, informing the public of a significant emergency taking place and asking for them to take an alternative route away from the scene?
If so, congratulations! If not, it’s time to evaluate how visible and relevant you are to your citizens. Is it easy? No. Is it necessary? Yes!
Be proactive with department promotion
In the age of the 30-second sound bite, we need to promote what we do every day to re-enforce the many roles we perform in serving our communities. No one else will do it for you, if you want to remain visible and relevant.