Between Alarms – July 2012
It has never been so crucial for our nation’s fire services to adapt to change and and: It has never been so crucial for our nation’s fire services to adapt to change and to be fully involved by creating innovative connections within our municipalities.
By Arjuna George
It has never been so crucial for our nation’s fire services to adapt to change and and: It has never been so crucial for our nation’s fire services to adapt to change and to be fully involved by creating innovative connections within our municipalities. Community engagement is a powerful tool and can raise your department’s public profile.
Building relationships – both in person and online – is important to the fire service’s success and survival. The fire service is known for participation in parades and chili cook-offs, but there is so much more potential to embrace and on which to build.
Being fully involved takes time, passion and dedication. Being active in your community by participating in school activities, fundraisers and events enables your fire service to build a new level of trust within the community.
Without community trust, fire departments will have difficulty growing and connecting with customers. Our team at Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue in British Columbia is active in numerous non fire-service related community initiatives, through which we have the opportunity to build relationships and trust.
Perhaps the biggest advancement in community engagement has been social media. Social media is often portrayed as a liability for fire departments, but I look at it as a gift – a gift through which we can market ourselves and promote our great business. If your department’s social media is managed correctly, your risk can be reduced. Wouldn’t it be nice to correct, and educate, uninformed community members before rumours spiral out of control and inaccurate information is known as the truth? Social media allows for communication and two-way dialogue, giving us an opportunity to respond to customer issues or questions. With a social media presence, we can build relationships with our communities that were never possible before; we can connect, and engage.
Facebook – the world’s largest social media site – has more than 800 million active users, and is forecast to hit one billion this summer: that’s potentially one billion customers we can educate about our visions and messages for almost no cost. One in 10 people in the world uses Facebook: can you and your department afford not to embrace it? If we don’t make an active effort to engage the community through social media, we run the risk of falling further down the municipal budget food chain. For fire departments, social media is key to expanding our connections and marketing our key messages. Start off small – open a department Facebook account, post some feel-good stories, promote your department’s accomplishments, and watch the feedback and the followers grow.
Traditional media still plays an important role in our marketing strategies, but our strategies better contain some online media too. Social media allows you to win friends and influence people at a whole new level.
The time to build your online community and following is well in advance of an incident. Only fresh, accurate information will build a strong following. Don’t wait for an emergency to occur to build your community; start today by engaging your social-media followers. Engagement occurs when your department’s social feeds are dynamic and active. Create a strong following by posting interesting articles share other departments’ achievements and ask questions. Asking thought-provoking questions allows interaction that draws new followers and maintains the ones you have.
A good rule is to occasionally focus on other newsworthy items, such as community milestones, not solely on your department. This helps to build a diverse following and people will begin to look to your social feeds for newsworthy information. Then, when an emergency does occur, your online community is ready and well established. (Follow Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue at www.facebook.com/ssifr or on Twitter@Saltspringfire.)
Instant and viral social-media tools are so powerful and simple that we should be stocking our toolboxes with them for emergencies too. Tools such as Twitter are effective at reaching thousands in seconds, and providing your community with crucial information regarding emergencies or important warnings. Imagine that by the press of a button, your entire following will be aware of your message of an evacuation notice, or a road closure. Twitter is simple, fast, and mobile, which is great for emergency services. Some emergency services that have already embraced Twitter have created pre-determined hashtags for certain emergencies or events (for example #ssiwildfire, for Salt Spring Island wildfire). This allows your followers to quickly find the information you are sharing on a specific topic.
Now, imagine being in control of the information leaving your emergency scene, and providing a time-sensitive message via video from the scene’s public information officer. Let’s take control of our message and use YouTube and other video-sharing services to send short, public-information messages to our followers. If you have a cellular or wireless network, you can send your message out to your community immediately, right from the scene.
The goal is to capture your audience, enchant them, dialogue with them, and build a trustworthy relationship for information and news. This newfound community connection may be the key to future budget processes, and for support for your department.
We cannot avoid the change; we must accept it, adjust to it and embrace it.
What are your strategies and tactics for growing your department into a fully involved powerhouse? Don’t let technology extinguish your fire.
Arjuna George is a 15-year veteran and the deputy fire chief of Operations on Salt Spring Island, B.C. E-mail him at email@example.com