How we tell our stories is central to our ability to maintain public trust
If you don’t believe public safety personnel should be held to a higher standard, please go back to class
There is an expectation that the fire department will show up at the right time, with the right people to do the right things – we will do no more harm than has already been done. THAT is the essence of the public’s trust in us.
The public trust is not germane to public safety agencies alone. The public trust is conceptually applicable to and for anyone who holds a position of authority/control over other people –teachers/daycare providers, elected officials, public utilities/service providers, among others. We, however, are the ones who deal with the public at what is likely their most vulnerable and helpless of times. THIS factor is the most critical to understanding how our actions and activities as firefighters and EMS personnel affect the public trust.
A higher standard
If you don’t believe public safety personnel should be held to a higher standard, please go back to class. I understand that the concept of public trust can be subjective for some people, but it is our responsibility as public servants to make public trust something that is as objective as possible.
Establishing and maintaining the public trust won’t always be a cakewalk, and like trust in general life terms, public trust is something that must be earned. We are in error if we expect that the public trust will be automatic. We are also mistaken in believing that the public trust exists just because you work for a fire department. Public trust exists on a moving continuum. It’s not just established one day and never revisited again.
All of this means that we must work hard in advance and behind the scenes to do the right things just as much (if not more) as we do when we’re responding to and showing up at incidents in our communities. Part of this involves how we tell our story.
Who’s telling your story?
Like it or not, gone are the days of a singular public information officer (PIO) being the only means to share a fire department’s story. While I submit to you that every public safety organization should have a dedicated PIO, I fully recognize that funding and staffing may not allow for this. Regardless, if you don’t take steps to designate an official public information strategy, your story will be told, one way or the other.
Let’s look at some examples of how fire department stories are told – stories that highlight four cornerstones of public trust:
- Organizational rules and regulations
- Hiring/membership practices
- Personnel/disciplinary policies
- Personal conduct
All of these stories occurred or made the press in a single month earlier this year.
Delayed response: A story of organizational rules and regulations
This WTAE news report followed a fatal fire from Father’s Day 2022. The incident occurred in an area where automatic-aid policies are apparently not universal (a common situation). It reportedly took 10 and 11 minutes for the first and second due fire engines to arrive at the fire. Despite a City of Pittsburgh station being located 1.7 miles away, and another 2.4 miles away, it would be more than 25 minutes before additional responding units from outside the city would arrive. This doesn’t even account for the 7 to 8 minutes that could have been saved if the city was on an automatic-aid policy with the local fire departments.
The local fire chief blamed the lengthy response on the holiday, in that membership was tied up with family activities. In the story, when asked if it would make sense to call the city, the local chief said, “It could have [made sense]. But again, would they call us? No.”
I don’t believe the 70-year-old fire victim cares, or would have cared, where their rescuers were coming from. The public trusts us to do the right thing.
I fully understand the conundrum (let’s face it, it’s usually an excuse) that many fire chiefs find themselves in with respect to relationships with mutual-aid partners, insurance rules and municipal boundaries – I’ve personally experienced them all. But we MUST rise above the conundrum to do the right thing for our communities. This should mean vetted, robust mutual-aid policies, with my preference being automatic-aid policies wherever possible.
The issue of mutual aid also speaks to the need for mutual operating procedures – maybe they’re not exact, but you know and respect what your neighbor’s policies are and they reciprocate. We all know a fire on the left side of the street is going to burn the same way as a fire on the right side of the street, so why are we looking at them with different policies? Same neighborhoods, same policies, same mutual aid.
Fugitive firefighter: A story of hiring practices, personnel policies and personal conduct
This WXIA report out of Douglas County, Georgia, hits three of the four cornerstones: hiring/membership practices, personnel/disciplinary policies, and personal conduct.
In this case, the fire chief, who was hired in January 2021, was placed on administrative leave after media sources revealed a firefighter hired by the chief in May 2021 was currently considered a fugitive. That firefighter had failed to show up in court for a 2019 felony theft arrest, and his background showed other troubling findings. While there are prior-to-hire background issues and performance counseling after hire, the fire department didn’t conduct a background check on the firefighter until June 29, 2021, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The fire department subsequently conducted a follow-up background check a year later.
What happened here? Without the department telling the story, I’ll surmise that the only background checks run AFTER the firefighter was hired were state of Georgia checks. The felony-theft arrest occurred in Alabama, where a Georgia-only check wouldn’t work.
If you’re not conducting federal background checks on your folks, you are NOT taking steps to establish nor maintain the public trust.
Train derailment chaos: A story of performance expectations
What happened in East Palestine, Ohio? Aside from a train wreck and a phenomenal amount of finger-pointing from the state and federal level, it would be hard for anyone to answer that question in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
Reminiscent of the 2014 and the 2016 contaminated water supply scenarios out of West Virginia and Flint, Michigan, I submit that East Palestine is another example of poor crisis communications. The communication is only as good as operational efficiencies of the responsible agencies – in other words, the coordination of “the story” is critical to not only the immediate public safety but also to the continuing public trust. As public servants, WE have a fundamental responsibility to establish and maintain the public trust, especially when we’re dealing with major incidents. When industry is allowed to drive their own messaging during disaster response and recovery (which I saw in all three cases), you can rest assured that the messaging will be self-serving. This is not an attack, just a fact rooted in history.
While the media picked up quickly on the incident, information flow seemed to slow as the incident unfolded. Residents faced conflicting and questionable information about water and air quality, all amid the finger-pointing among various parties. While railroad officials were pronouncing the drinking water “safe to drink,” elected officials were digging up oiling creek beds demanding accountability – all within the first 2 weeks.
Who’s maintaining the public trust here? Granted, this one is slightly more complex with the Federal Railway involved; however, the common (and unifying) denominator SHOULD have been the National Incident Management System, which, if properly employed at this scene, would have remedied many of the deficiencies I note above. It’s 2023 – we cannot allow the legacies of past poor performance with federal agency involvement be the excuse for poor performance. Multi-discipline training on NIMS, ICS and unified command concepts are necessary for ALL departments, regardless of their size, pay status or system complexity.
Is your story a circus or a fire scene?
I recently attended a long-running performance circus. While a circus atmosphere can be great fun for an outing with the family, it has no place on our emergency scene. We need to stop blaming the clowns for acting like clowns if we’re going to keep letting them run a circus. So, are you running a fire scene, or a three-ring circus? It begins with YOU and the story you tell.
Remember, all emergency incidents begin as local responses. In addition to all the perfunctory emergency and operational responsibilities, our response MUST include effective communication to the public. This requires a professional approach that goes beyond the traditional expectations of firefighter and fire officer certifications and credentialling. It requires that we do everything in our power to maintain the public trust.