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FIRE 20/20's monthly eNewsletter delivers inspiring articles, thought-provoking interviews and useful tools for Fire/EMS personnel, and those considering a career in the fire service. Topics are oriented around diversity recruitment and retention.
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07-09-12 -- By Lori Wirth
Among the most intractable challenges of community risk reduction is reaching out to those who have isolated themselves from the very resources that can make such a positive difference in maintaining health and safety.
People in the community who feel marginalized are not inclined to seek out information or attend lectures with the scintillating titles of “Falls Prevention” or “Fire Safety.”
People who struggle day to day to put food on the table and care for their children have little left at the end of the day to seek out resources that people connected to city government take for granted as easily accessible.
It’s why diversity in the fire service is such a deeply-felt need. We know that when our first responders represent the community they serve, it streamlines response, communication, and emergency medical care. When first responders bring knowledge of different cultural norms to an incident, they are better able to address specific needs of the community in a way that links state-of-the-art suppression tactics and emergency medical care with compassionate care of the humans who are at the center of that call.
But the benefits of a diverse fire service extend beyond the emergency-based interactions with the community. When the fire department represents the community across the cultural and ethnic spectrum, it extends its “family” further into the community.
Citizens who may be put off by uniforms or government entities in general now have “someone who looks like me” to call for assistance.
Consider the difference between someone who calls the number on the website and attempts to find the right person to answer a question or make a request, and someone who knows a firefighter from their neighborhood or community organization who can guide them to the right resource.
When a person knows someone on the "inside," the barrier is gone because they know there is someone in the department who can advocate for them. The governmental red tape of bureaucracy falls away because there is a personal connection.
As our department has become more diverse, we have received more calls from the community that begin with: 'My friend, sister, son, neighbor works for your department. They told me to call you to get an answer.'
It’s an underappreciated, yet powerful mechanism to increase outreach and bring messages to underserved populations.
But this is only a part of true relationship building. To reach audiences that are not in your immediate sphere of influence, it takes a different view of outreach.
Some of the most effective outreach techniques provide information and services that may be tangential to your core messaging.
For example, in Madison what began as a favor to our community partners has turned out to be a remarkable link to underserved communities. Safe Kids was looking for a weather-proof location for car seat checks. So we opened two of our fire stations for monthly checks in the apparatus bay. The result was a steady influx of families with young children that embodied the diversity of our larger community.
By certifying our Community Education Officers as Child Passenger Safety Technicians, we put our educators on the front lines of engagement with people who might otherwise never have entered one of our firehouses.
The City of Madison adds another layer of connection with a strong network of neighborhood associations that are encouraged and supported by City staff. Members of our Prevention Division - both inspectors and educators - are part of the Neighborhood Resource Teams that meet regularly to hear from citizens and work with them to find solutions to specific neighborhood issues.
These teams also provide a forum for the MFD to introduce new initiatives regarding public safety and receive immediate feedback.
There will always be those members of the public who seek us out for their own reasons, but in an era where government entities are increasingly stretched and tested by the citizens they serve, it will be up to us to take the first steps to reach out into the community, and listen.