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The good and the bad of firefighter behavior and public relations

While firehouse scandal and negative headlines aren’t completely avoidable, focus on the mission at hand and get in front of bad behavior to improve community and public relations


Multiple 911 calls, the alarm sounds, responding units weave through choking traffic, the first engine reports; "Fire showing from the first floor with people hanging off the balconies above." While bystanders record the events, hoping for the right shot that gives them their 15 seconds of fame, firefighters go to work, make the rescues, put the fire out and go home – all is well in Whoville.

Until the next morning’s headlines; "Caught on camera, firefighters fight each other, while building burns." Regardless of the sensational headlines, we need to figure out how to get in front of bad information, if we’re not able to stop bad outcomes in the first place.

Reputation management 

Getting in front of negative information is even more important than being in front of good information. (Photo/San Antonio Fire Department)
Getting in front of negative information is even more important than being in front of good information. (Photo/San Antonio Fire Department)

I’m going to focus on the human reality in this article, making the assumption that we’re not able to stop every bad outcome. Having an engaged public information officer and a relevant public relations strategy will go miles toward representing, maintaining and telling the story of your agency – the good and the bad.

Honesty and transparency should be cornerstones of your public relations strategy, a strategy which should strive to build and maintain the public’s trust. I have witnessed the difficulty PIOs can have when differing agency strategies for sharing public information get in the way of the desire for transparency. This tends to lend credibility to the conspiracy theorists who believe we’re hiding something.

Your full public relations strategy should not be limited to traditional public information. The strategy needs to encompass the aspects of agency administration/organizational progress, prevention and public education, along with the traditions of community service that were founding principles of the American fire service. Simply expecting that your communities will support you, come hell or high water, is no longer the norm and is short-sighted at best.

Honesty and transparency 

Getting in front of negative information is even more important than being in front of good information. Acknowledging the good and the bad is one hallmark of a robust and transparent organization. A good public information officer who’s in sync with the chief and the heartbeat of the organization will make it look easy (and it will be if you stay in sync). Documenting and recognizing the good stuff while getting our people to stop doing stupid stuff requires fluid leadership. 

For all the great headlines we see, there seem to be 10 others that make it “above the fold” in mainstream media (for you younger folks – that’s a newspaper reference ... ask your granddad). “Fire engine ticketed for parking in fire lane,” “Lieutenant arrested for punching firefighter,” “Off-duty fire recruit arrested for disorderly conduct,” “Firefighter brawl,” “Police arrest fire chief for blocking road,” – just a few of the real headlines we see all too often. It’s an embarrassing and all-too-common MO in our business.

For as much good as exists within us, we need to be honest with and prepared to deal with the bad in ourselves. Recognizing some of the headlines are not just a fire department problem, rarely (and I mean never) have I seen the street-paving folks brawling over who gets to lay the asphalt, or the garbage-collectors fighting over who gets to dump the next can. How childish, immature, and unprofessional are these incidents?

Some justify the antics with “we [the fire service] are no different than any other family,” or “the stresses get to us all.” From a metaphoric perspective, we are similar to families as a whole, however, the other families we’re talking about aren’t performing public-safety-sensitive functions in the course of their normal relationships.

Grandma Jones doesn’t care whether you’re paid or volunteer – we all have a responsibility to uphold the public’s trust. Additionally, if the job stress in you is manifesting in physical altercations on the scene of building fires, then you need to leave the fireground and seek help for those stressors.

Improve public relations by keeping serving the public at the forefront

Our number one mission should be to serve the public. That is the who we are and the what we do in a nutshell. Serving the public, many times during their darkest and most personal moments, means maintaining the public’s trust in our ability to serve. Does this mean we’re perfect? No – but it should mean we’re as close to perfect as is humanly possible.

The vast majority of the dysfunction I have described here is fully within our control. The question is: how do we manage and avoid the drama? Easier asked, than solved in one article, however being ready with an honest and effective public relations strategy will help manage the drama and the headlines.

Just as important, if not more so, is managing and leading the organization to a level of expectation that celebrates and rewards all the good, while dealing with (rather than tolerating) the bad. It is important to note that dealing with the bad cannot realistically be achieved through discipline alone. A combination of discipline, training and attitude adjustments should combine to better serve us all.

Volunteer/career, male/female, first due/second due, etc., it doesn’t matter. What did I say earlier? Grandma Jones does not care. Fortunately, the stories of heroism and bravado usually out-number the embarrassing headlines. Unfortunately, the old adage; “one ‘aw-crap’ wipes out 10 ‘atta-boys,’” comes to mind. Decorum and the matter of image management is something the fire service needs to work on. 

The need to react to good and bad isn’t limited to operational activities, and the days of cover-up should be all but extinct ... not that some departments don’t still try, time and time again. As we’ve seen social media explode in popularity, we’ve watched many careers and reputations explode with it. The advent of cellphone video and near universal network connectivity can make your hometown heroes hometown zeroes in a matter of seconds. Make sure you have a public relations strategy and a vetted social media policy that will withstand legal challenges and be in front of the reporters digging.

Keep your mission in the forefront 24/7 – serving our communities should certainly be the primary focus of that mission. Save the fire lanes for emergencies; get out in your community; and build relationships with your residents, your businesses, your neighboring departments and also with your allied agencies. Reward your people for doing good and right, while also dealing with the bad and wrong (through training and discipline).

Don’t wait for the headlines. Be honest, transparent and in-front, before you find yourself behind.

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