Updated: Dec 1, 2021
Creating a Foundation to a Sustainable Future in the Volunteer Fire and EMS Service
We all know over the last decade or more, the volunteer fire service in the United States has experienced many issues. However, is anyone truly serious about fixing them? Municipal budgets cannot afford to expand the career service in small rural towns or even larger counties. This series is not meant to focus on career versus volunteer, but rather sounding the alarm to those individuals serving in leadership positions within the volunteer fire service and perhaps offering some solutions.
We need to take bold action and make a significant change if we want the volunteer fire service to be around for decades to come. The service is ingrained in our nation’s history, as Benjamin Franklin founded the first volunteer fire department in 1736. First, we have to acknowledge that a problem exists and what the problems are before we begin to address them.
Part I - Social Club vs. Non-Profit
Too many people do not understand the important role that volunteer fire and EMS departments play in their community. Businesses and citizens are saturated with donation requests from churches, nonprofits, political groups, and much more. Where do you rank in your community’s charitable giving? We must change the perception of the general public for them to embrace and support us. Right, wrong, or indifferent, the public has a perception of your organization. Is it good or bad? Does your community see you as a professional non-profit organization or just a social club?
When the community is concerned, perception is reality. Consider some of the following:
When people call 9-1-1 in their worst of times, they expect a professional service. Do you deliver? Don’t answer that too quickly! The community perception of your professionalism starts with how your crew is dressed. There is a saying “You are only as professional as you look”. When the best EMS provider in the world is dressed like they just got finished playing a quick game of football, that’s the perception the community has. Additionally, make sure your training standards are up to par. Training should always be a top priority in any department.
Departments should strive to have uniform members attend local community meetings and events. Work on holding open houses and Hands-Only CPR classes for the public provided by your members in a well-dressed uniform. This doesn’t need to break your budget either. It is important to develop and maintain relationships in non-stressful situations. Inevitably, someone will be unhappy with your services when they call 9-1-1. It happens to everyone. Unfortunately, that person is always the squeaky wheel-posting all over social media, vocal in the community, etc. You need to establish your “army” of supporters well before this event happens. It is all about reputation management. You expand your network by doing community events in non-stressful situations.
Work on the “drive-by”. The drive-by is when a member of the community drives by your station. What impression do they have? This is simple as having the grass cut, a fresh coat of paint on the bay doors, and a relevant message displayed on the sign. Your station doesn't have to be new, just neat, clean, and as professional-looking as possible. The ‘drive-by” also includes assuring that any “horseplaying” is kept out of sight. If members are going to hang out on the front ramp, they should be in a uniform.
Have a policy addressing social-media use. Protect yourself from a member who can be associated with your department from posting controversial content for all to see and judge your department by. This becomes a delicate balance between a member's First Amendment rights and ensuring the proper reputation of the department. Many businesses and nonprofits alike have a social media policy in place to protect themselves.
Develop a digital marketing strategy. Social media platforms are the easiest way to get the word out about your department and not break the bank. This is your opportunity to set the perception your community has of your department. Make sure you have guidelines in place for the members who are engaged in your department's social media production. Having guidelines in place helps with consistency and reputation management should a crisis arise. Lastly, make sure your content has proper spelling and grammar.
Work hard at setting the culture in your organization. When professionalism is set within your culture, many of the poor-perception issues will not be present. This must start at the top.
Lastly, every opportunity you get you should be selling your department's story. Be active and engaged in your community. Constantly take the opportunity to educate them on your services and the performance of your department. Don't be afraid to identify areas of growth and ask for help. It only increases the engagement between the community and the department. This can be accomplished in community meetings, business meetings, community events, HOA meetings, and or events at the station. An additional nice touch would be to develop an annual report at the conclusion of each calendar year highlighting the accomplishments of the department, the budget, response statistics, and more. Mail it out to your largest supporters, local leaders, and elected officials. Considering printing and mailing a copy can get expensive, you can also provide a PDF copy on your website, social accounts, and or email marketing system to the remainder of your community.
What your community thinks about its volunteer fire and EMS service, is a collection of their individual perceptions. Work on them everywhere you can. You want your community to be your number one advocate. Throughout this blog, we focused on the uniform. We realize that many departments operate very differently, some depending on pager responses versus others who have in-station staffing. Regardless of the operation, it is important for the leadership to instill the importance of a uniform. Your uniform represents the department that you care so much about. Leaders should look at innovative ways to give out t-shirts, job shirts, polos, etc. Perhaps they can be used as awards, top responder gifts, etc.