Connecting with Your Local Fire Department
by Ronald Jon Siarnicki
So, you want to get your local fire service more involved with your organization’s activities? You have probably thought about this many times, but you may not have figured out how to reach them on a level that will bring about positive results. If you’ve had little or no response to date, don’t feel alone! You’re not the only group trying to reach out to the members of your community-based fire service. The following tips should help to give you a slight edge.
LEARN ABOUT YOUR DEPARTMENT
Before making your initial contact with the department, take the time to do some homework and prepare yourself for the first encounter. Learn all that you can about how your fire department operates, the type of organization it is, its administrative and managerial structure, the staffing components for delivery of services, and, most importantly, its funding sources. Educate yourself about the organization so you can better craft the “ask” part of what it is you would like them to do.
For example, whether or not a fire department operates with career personnel or volunteers varies greatly. Some are all career, some are all volunteer, and some include a combination of career and volunteer firefighters. If yours is a career fire department, a labor organization probably plays a significant role in providing philanthropic support to selected groups. The local union can often provide direct monetary support, as well as fund-raising assistance, and tremendous personnel resources if the cause fits with its priorities. An organization that is involved with treating burn injuries is a natural fit. In many cases, the employees of a career fire department can donate to organized campaigns, such as the United Way, through payroll deduction programs. These donations are often directed toward particular causes that meet the same criteria.
Fire departments themselves seldom have the ability to provide direct monetary support to other organizations since their funding comes from tax revenues; however they can often provide nonmonetary assistance. They might be able to “lend their name” to a campaign, helping with public exposure. Many large city departments reach out to support particular charities within their jurisdictional boundaries and elected representatives sometimes influence the decision of which causes are supported.
The situation is quite different with volunteer fire departments. Many volunteer fire departments have to conduct their own fundraising activities to support their basic operations, so they do not have funds or other resources to share with other groups. A few volunteer fire departments are so successful at fund raising that they have an excess of funds that can be distributed, but this is unusual. Volunteers often can provide various types of in-kind support through the efforts of their volunteer membership and many have facilities that can be used for fund-raising events.
DETERMINE YOUR NEEDS
The second part of your pre-contact homework is to determine exactly what it is that you want from the fire department before you ask. Firefighters are very taskoriented people and like to know up front what they are committing to do, the duration of the commitment, and what end result should be produced. This is how they operate on the scene of an emergency incident and you are more likely to be successful by applying these same strategies to your “ask.” Before you ask for support, you should develop a plan that clearly identifies the requested support and the desired outcome.
MEET WITH DECISION MAKERS
Third, find out who the decision maker is within the structure of the organization you are approaching. In most cases, it will be the fire chief or the president of a volunteer organization. It could also be the chairman of the board of directors, or a fire commissioner, or even an elected official to whom the organization reports. If it is a labor organization, try to contact the local union president or the chairperson of their charitable committee. Knowing exactly whom you need to ask will save you a lot of time, effort, and frustration.
The next problem is often figuring out how to get to the decision maker of the organization. You might have to go through a liaison, staff assistant, or organizational sponsor in order to discover the lay of the land and to develop a strategy for the “ask.” Check to see if the department has a public information officer (PIO) or a designated representative who speaks to the media about organizational matters. This individual is often a great place to start. Also, do you know any members of the organization who have been treated at your regional burn center or unit? Using that individual to make your introduction to the right person can be very fruitful for obvious reasons.
Finally, once you have completed your homework assignment and developed your plan of attack, make an appointment to meet the decision maker. At the meeting, be sure to have a well-prepared presentation, be ready to answer questions, ask for what you need, and provide potential solutions to the problems you want to have addressed. After the meeting, follow up in a courteous and consistent manner.
BE PERSISTENT, BUT FLEXIBLE
Sometimes a little persistence is needed to reach the finish line successfully, but that’s okay as long as it is done in a professional manner. Understand the constraints that apply to your target audience and make allowances—adjust your “ask” accordingly. Be willing to work with them and understand that sometimes the answer has to be “no,” even if you have a worthy cause and what feels like a reasonable request. Be prepared for that situation by having an alternative request ready and go at it again. Most importantly, if you do make any commitments during the “ask,” carry through on them. Not doing so will most assuredly end the relationship abruptly and permanently.
These few tips should help you in your efforts to reach out to your local fire service organization and build a strong and lasting relationship with them.
Ronald Siarnicki is the executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. A thirdgeneration firefighter, he rose through the ranks of the Prince George’s County (Maryland) Fire/EMS Department to serve as Fire Chief. He is also currently a member of The Phoenix Society’s Board of Trustees.
This story is an excerpt from The Phoenix Society’s® Burn Support News, Summer Edition 2005, Issue 2. Burn Support News is a quarterly publication that contains articles on the emotional, psychological, and social aspects of burn recovery. All Rights Reserved.