MLK Day: How will firefighters observe the day of service?

We are all encouraged to "make it a day ON, not a day OFF," doubling-down on our community efforts

This article was originally posted on Jan. 18, 2020, prior to social distancing guidelines resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Please follow proper safety protocols during volunteer activities and consider virtual community engagement opportunities when social distancing is required.

Many of us recognize September 11th as Patriot Day, a day of service and remembrance. What many of us may not realize is that there is another federally designated day of service.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day, observed each year on the third Monday in January, celebrates the Civil Rights leader’s life and legacy through a day of service, deemed “a day on, not a day off.” All Americans are encouraged to volunteer to improve their communities.

The initiative, which was enacted by Congress in 1994, calls for Americans from all walks of life to work together to provide solutions to our most pressing national problems. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the MLK Day of Service, “empowers individuals, strengthens communities, bridges barriers, creates solutions to social problems, and moves us closer to Dr. King's vision of a ‘Beloved Community.’”

Crews build an access ramp for a citizen.
Crews build an access ramp for a citizen. (Photos/Marc Bashoor)

If you aren’t sure exactly how to give back, the CNCS’ primary MLK Day of Service website offers a “Find a Volunteer Opportunity” tab. A search for me yielded 13 volunteer opportunities within 15 miles of my home. The opportunities run the gamut, from reading to children to hospice care assistance. There are also options like pet visitations, community park restorations and opportunities related to veterans’ needs.

Many of us are accustomed to the traditional fire and EMS response services we provide and the Fire Prevention Day-type open houses we conduct – but those are our “standard” events. The MLK Day of Service provides a great and different opportunity for members of the fire service to get out of the station and into the community, making differences that cross socioeconomic and cultural boundaries, in ways you might not normally engage.

This is a great time to be going door to door on smoke alarm campaigns, having educational talks or meet-and-greets with community groups, or holding community hands-only CPR classes or other programs. Our snow-country friends might use the opportunity to help clear ice or snow, an activity they likely wouldn’t otherwise be involved in. Or maybe it’s going door to door checking exhaust pipe clearances to guard against carbon monoxide buildup. The only challenge should be reining in your imagination, thinking up ways to give back to the community.

That being said, I challenge you to not narrow the focus to simply fire and EMS safety. Take an extra look at things where the force-multiplier of your crew can make a difference for community center landscaping, helping paint the house of a resident in need, fixing that dilapidated fence you drive by every day. Whatever you can think of, you can impact.

Fire service leaders can reach younger generations by speaking at mentoring programs or youth events.
Fire service leaders can reach younger generations by speaking at mentoring programs or youth events. (Photo/Marc Bashoor)

I also understand that there can be opportunities lost through the approval process caught up in the bureaucracy of government. If this happens to you, please don’t get discouraged. Do what you can!

The MLK Day of Service should indeed be “a day on, not a day off”. We all understand the differences we make every day providing life safety services, and as part of special projects year-round. Let’s use this holiday to double-down on those efforts to make our communities better places to be, for everyone.

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