Volunteer Vision: March 2011
By Vince MacKenzie
In today’s world image is everything. Organizations, corporations,
governments and even fire departments hold their values out to the
public for support. Everyone has a message, so marketing has to be a
staple of any successful organization.
By Vince MacKenzie
In today’s world image is everything. Organizations, corporations, governments and even fire departments hold their values out to the public for support. Everyone has a message, so marketing has to be a staple of any successful organization. Caring about how those associated with the fire service perceive us is an important aspect of any well-functioning volunteer fire department.
The good reputation of the fire service is invaluable to us. The public holds firefighters in high esteem and the trust placed by our citizens in the fire service puts us in the top three of all professions. When we joined the fire service our future image came pre-packaged, handed down by those who served before us. We volunteered because we valued the way society trusts firefighters and the pride that is associated with that. This image of fire fighting is what continues to motivate us. The volunteer fire service typically attracts those who have an interest in serving with honour, distinction and pride. As volunteer firefighters today, we hold that reputation dearly to our hearts.
Now, we live in a world of speedy information due to social media. Even traditional news services scan personal Facebook pages for information, and that means firefighters have to pay closer attention to their activities. Managing the reputations of our fire departments is becoming more important than ever, as the actions of its members – both on and off duty – can severely impact the good public relations we have worked so hard to establish and maintain. Management of the reputation of your fire department has always been everyone’s responsibility, from chief to rookie. Pride and passion have driven us but we need to re-evaluate the way we do things.
One would think that personal comments placed on a member’s Facebook page, or a tweet from a cellphone, wouldn’t have that great an impact. But when a comment is accompanied by a member’s photo in your fire department’s uniform, or with your department’s crest as a profile logo, these comments can take on a new context for the public. This is where our reputation becomes so important.
Sometimes the illegal, selfish, distasteful or reckless action of one or several individuals in the fire service has a severe impact on the well-earned reputation of the fire department. Recently, the media has been littered with reports and headlines about volunteer firefighters being accused of this or that, or charged with something or another. When headlines and the accompanying stories hit the media, the membership of the organization and, in some cases, the entire fire service, can unjustly suffer.
We are all aware that once labelled as firefighters we should wear that title proudly. Any one of us can see that pride in our caches of t-shirts; indeed, we wear that pride every day in our regular lives. So, even if an incident involves another fire department in another region, the way news travels in today’s world, the image of the entire fire service can take a hit.
There is an unwritten code of ethics in the fire service. With the seeming decline in morals over the last few decades, a more liberal society, and the exercising of the freedoms we all enjoy, firefighters continue to be trusted to do the right thing. Answering our calls and conducting our daily duties means we have people’s lives, their dignity and their worldly possessions in our hands from time to time.
When the ethics of the actions of someone in your department get called into question, or when a firefighter engages in activities that are immoral, offensive, discriminatory or criminal, the rest of the organization is often left to pick up the pieces. Fire departments have enough challenges to recruitment and retention; for a department to suddenly face undue injury to its reputation compounds this problem.
Whether your department adopts written policies on social media or chooses not to indulge in the personal lives of its members from an organizational standpoint, there’s a fine line between what is acceptable and what is not. The bottom line for every member of the fire service is to at least be fully aware that in today’s world, where news of any firefighter’s actions can move at the speed of light, those actions can affect the department’s reputation positively and negatively. So, all members should consider how to conduct themselves with that in mind – on duty, off duty, online and offline. That’s a tall order from an organization for which you volunteer.
Managing the reputation of an organization is a skill which we all will need to sharpen. Managing reputation has always been a part of the fire service, but with these new media that allow news to travel even more quickly, a fresh approach in reputation management may warrant consideration.
Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. He is the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Service, the second vice president of the Maritime Fire Chiefs Association and a director of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org