Updated: Nov 25, 2021
Volunteer fire departments are critical to their communities, yes? Communities are also essential to volunteer fire departments. However, many departments do not operate with this mindset. Volunteer departments depend on their communities to support events, make donations, become members, and so on. Communities are reflective of not just their residents; but also businesses, visitors, and elected officials. Our community is our additional member.
So why do departments operate in a silo? It's because "that is how we have always done it"- but that doesn't make it right. Reflect for a moment on your personal life. When you choose to donate your hard-earned money to an organization, don't you want to know where it is going and how it impacts you? We often see articles about improper cash handling and embezzlement in volunteer fire companies. These articles are what the public sees. They don't ever hear about the thousands of departments that do it right every day, but we only have ourselves to blame for that.
There are quick and easy ways to help improve this two-way communication. Produce an annual report at the end of each calendar year. This report can be a PDF file placed on your department's website. You can also print copies and hand them out at events or even mail them to some of your top supporters (including your elected officials). Utilize your social media presence to create infographics about income, expenses, investments, etc. There are free resources such as CANVA to assist you in creating infographics and other relevant graphics for social media.
Implement the position of "community board member" on your board of directors. This role serves in several capacities:
Elevating your operations
Providing business-minded support
Serving as an ambassador to your community
Being a link of transparency to the community
We will be posting a blog soon about the community board member role. You won't want to miss it.
Is your department planning a significant capital project such as a new station? You will most likely need tremendous support from your community for a new station. You must engage them in the process. Host a meeting or a town hall to provide input on the design, size, and budget. Educate them on the need while also selling your story. It is easy to find articles about departments facing backlash from their communities because they are building an "unnecessary Tajmahal." We all know this is not true most of the time, but the fatal mistake with those departments was they did not engage their community (their stakeholders).
Participate in community and business association meetings which allow for engagement and the ability to answer questions. Perhaps ditch the class A uniform or all the fancy pins so that you are more approachable and fit in. In doing this, you will make the conversation much more manageable.
Think about the controversial issues that all find a way of impacting our departments. A few of the most critical topics that communities complain about are house sirens and the use of sirens. To us, these complaints are "ridiculous," and we immediately dismiss them. We often take the "do you know who we are" approach. What if we lowered the temperature, instilled some humility, and worked collaboratively with our community regarding their complaints. Depending on your location, you may have newer families moving into your communities from places that never had a volunteer fire department. Rather than alienating that new "supporter," sit down and talk with them. Understand their concerns, educate them on your concerns and work towards a common good. We won't get into the house siren debate...we are simply suggesting to be more humble in your approach.
If we want to continue to succeed, we have to rid ourselves of the mindset that we are operating in a silo. Our communities can be our number one fans or our number one adversary. We have to learn to work together. We mutually need each other. Without the support of our community, we receive no donations. We have no one to attend our events. Where do we recruit?
It is up to you to choose how you want to engage your community. It is much easier to have the community on your side working together. Many people in our districts wish for strong and safe communities. They also want to help, but they often don't know-how. They only know of the department being shut off to them. Open your doors- literally and figuratively.