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How to persuade your community to vote for public safety funding

Don’t assume residents know what your department does; spell it out and explain how additional funding would positively impact community members

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“How can the fire service run a persuasive campaign that captures the attention of a majority of voters, while also securing votes from the ‘naysayers?’” writes Rielage.

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Is your department preparing for an upcoming levy or bond issue? Perhaps it is to replace a 25-year-old fire engine or a 15-year-old EMS transport unit. The funding could be ear-marked to hire your first “daytime” firefighters to augment your volunteer force, or to transition from combination to career firefighters.

Whatever the purpose, a ballot issue is never unanimous; there will always be those who vote against it because they can’t see a reason or a need for change. Perhaps they (incorrectly!) assume they’ll never need you. How can the fire service run a persuasive campaign that captures the attention of a majority of voters, while also securing votes from the “naysayers?”

Before I continue, I want to note that I have some experience in this arena. I’ve been a part of almost every type of fire department in my career and have gone through many fire levy or bond issue campaigns. At 17, I was a volunteer on a department that held a “Fish Fry” fundraiser every Friday to raise money to fuel the department’s apparatus. Fortunately, one of the other fire department members also owned the local gas station and offered the department credit long before there was such a word.

I also served as a volunteer firefighter for a small community while stationed in Nebraska with the U.S. Air Force and later returned to Ohio as a part-time paid firefighter, career firefighter, officer and chief. As the state’s fire marshal, I visited departments of all sizes that fit many of these categories, and the discussion of finances or raising money for a worthwhile improvement was always a topic of interest.

Educating the community

First things first: Don’t be lulled into thinking that “everyone” knows what your department does – spell it out. There are several ways to communicate your messages.

Note: These suggestions are not last-minute tactics but rather ideas that can be accomplished with little or no expense for most ballot initiatives, and can be included on signs, posters, handouts, social media and in press releases.

  1. Up-sell the organization’s benefits. First, describe your department: volunteer, combination including part-paid, or all career – and why? How does that type of department best meet the needs of your citizens and community? Explain the myriad emergencies the department responds to – fires, medical calls, auto accidents with extrication, natural disasters such as windstorms, tornadoes and floods, or human-caused disasters such as train derailments and hazmat incidents. Share how your mutual-aid agreements with other fire departments work not only to assist one another, but also how they work as a part of a bigger plan to provide your citizens better service.
  2. Break down current challenges. Obviously, data is important, but keep it simple for the public. So when you explain how your coverage area or population has grown since the last time you’ve asked for money, transition that into how those changes have affected your run volume, response time or the number of firefighters available to respond. Keep it brief and simple: “We want to raise this amount of additional revenue. Here is what it’s for and here is our projected outcome to provide better service to you and our community.”
  3. Show off the station. Hold an Open House and make it a family affair. Let children, under supervision, become firefighters for a day during their visit, and invite parents to take family pictures at the station. Offer voters the opportunity to see the condition of your apparatus that you operate and any other areas that may need sprucing. Clearly explain these needs and why they are important for better response. Reinforce that you are much more than the just the fire department they imagine – that you are the only “all hazard” department that covers their home, their family, their business or where they work, shop, worship or where their children attend school.
  4. Solicit testimonials from the community. Let your citizens know how those who have actually used your services recently feel about your response, your problem-solving, your caring and the follow-up to their emergency that your department has provided. Ask if you can use that testimonial in a flyer, a web posting, or on a campaign sign.

    Chief Alan V. Brunacini, one of the smartest fire chiefs ever to serve, left us a legacy regarding customer service to his metaphorical “Mrs. Smith.” One sentence from him that I remember is: “Don’t speak to her in tactical language … emotional language is the only communication she (or anyone else) will understand, really hear, or actually remember.” The same is true of any citizen testimonial read by others; empathy is a strong motivator.

  5. Take ‘no’ for an answer. There will always be those who have never been persuaded to vote for any monetary increase on any issue: schools, roads or the fire department. Expect it; don’t be surprised about it. Perhaps it’s because they truly believe they or their family will never experience a fire, fall ill or suffer a loss from any hazard your department covers.

Get their attention

Maybe a catchy call-to-action will capture the attention of naysayers; something like: “With your ‘YES’ vote, the XYZ Fire and Rescue will be ready to respond at a moment’s notice! Why? Because, tomorrow you just might need us!”

Stay safe!


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Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.