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3 easy steps to improving community relations

Firefighters are uniquely positioned in their communities to see real needs that may be overlooked by others


Firefighters from the Westminster (Colo.) Fire Department were driving by a care facility for elderly residents when they noticed something. In front of the building, someone had scrawled a swastika in a freshly poured concrete sidewalk.

Incidents of anti-Semitism have been on the rise in the greater Denver area in recent months, including swastikas etched into cars near the University of Denver.

Instead of just looking the other way or commenting among themselves, the crew stopped. They got out and examined the damage. Then they spent the next hour or so removing the vandalism from the sidewalk before continuing with the business of their day.

Doing this work was not an assignment, but rather a spontaneous decision on the part of the crew. According to Kandice Young, clinical director of the care facility, “They were driving by and they noticed it on the sidewalk and just stopped — out of the kindness of their hearts.”

Young was not the only one to appreciate the firefighters’ efforts. The facility’s residents, whose number includes three Jewish seniors, visited the fire station with handmade thank-you notes and other tokens of appreciation. “We love what they do for us,” one resident said.

3 important lessons

This small act had big payoffs in enhancing public relations, building crew bonds and in positive media coverage that went national. The event also provides some important lessons for how all firefighters may foster better community relations:

1. Pay attention.

Fire crews are very focused when engaged in emergency response, but sometimes allow themselves to be distracted otherwise. When driving in your district, look around. Notice small things. Stop, get off the rig and walk around. Talk to people in the community, not just at special events, but in the course of a normal day. Listen to their concerns and their observations.

2. Take action.

Don’t just notice things, do something about them. In this case, the firefighters had the ability to correct the problem themselves. In other instances, they might have to facilitate someone else to respond. In any case, when you see something wrong, don’t just drive on by. Do something about it.

3. Be humble.

Finally, don’t make a big deal about it. The positive press in the case of the Westminster firefighters was not instigated by them, but rather by the people they helped. The firefighters were appreciative of the acclaim they received, but also noted what they did was perfectly normal, something anyone would have done.

This simple formula can have extraordinary effects in improving community relations and developing positive crew identity. But some fire departments create an environment where such actions would be unlikely to take place.

In some cases, fire departments are too busy and too specifically task-driven to allow a crew to spontaneously take on an hour-long project that was not pre-planned. Crews are so busy going from point A to point B and checking off a list of obligations that they may not even notice something like a swastika on a sidewalk.

And then there are some crews who just don’t see it as their place to take on such a task, even if they do notice it.

In some departments, crews might notice something and want to take action but are constrained by departmental or city policies that make doing something difficult or impossible. Forms need to be filled out, permission sought and granted, liability waivers signed … you get the idea.

Leadership fosters initiative

Finally, some individual firefighters might see needs in their communities and want to do something about them, but don’t know how to initiate the process, or may be unsure if their crew or department would be supportive to them in such efforts.

This is where leadership comes in. The officer on the rig driving by in Westminster may not have been the first one to notice the swastika on the sidewalk, but his decision to stop and take action was critical for the outcome. And his actions in this instance make it clear to his crew that such initiative is not only OK, but desirable.

Some fire departments have taken these three steps and shaped them into a formal program to help members of the community. One example is Oakland Firefighters Random Acts, a nonprofit organization that partners with the Oakland Fire Department. This organization provides material support and emotional comfort to residents in need who firefighters notice when out and about in their community. The Oakland City Council has passed a resolution giving Oakland firefighters the ability to perform random acts of kindness in uniform while on duty with the use of available OFD engines and trucks.

Firefighters and paramedics are uniquely positioned in their communities to see real needs that may be overlooked by others. They can make a huge difference just by paying attention, stopping and doing something about it. And although such acts should never be done for glory or recognition, an organization that supports individuals taking action in this way will do more for positive community relations than with most other more costly efforts.

About the author

Linda F. Willing worked for more than 20 years in the emergency services, including 18 as a career firefighter and fire officer. For more than 15 years, she has supported fire and emergency services and other organizations through her company, RealWorld Training and Consulting. She is the author of "On the Line: Women Firefighters Tell Their Stories." Linda is an adjunct instructor and curriculum advisor for the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program. She has a bachelor’s degree in American studies, a master’s degree in organization development and is a certified mediator. Linda is a member of the FireRescue1/Fire Chief Editorial Advisory Board. To contact Linda, e-mail Linda.Willing@FireRescue1.com.

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