Well, if that is the purpose of community outreach efforts, then how do we know when we’ve achieved our goal?
Consider a case study from much earlier in my career, in Portland, Oregon. We (the fire department) were competing with other city bureaus for funding in the early 1990s. Tax dollars were scarce, the taxpayers were pushing property tax limits, and general anxiety over too much government was a norm for our times and community.
The police were getting budget increases at the time because of their efforts to institutionalize something called community policing. The fire department budget was being cut. The fire chief asked me to lead a small team to come up with the equivalent of community policing for the fire service. And like many mistakes I’ve made, I went with the old standby of some established community outreach efforts. I thought we needed to improve our relationship with the taxpaying public, and we would do so through a variety of efforts that would open up the fire stations and our department to community events and people.
Among other things, we would increase our visibility by attending neighborhood association meetings, just like the police bureau. Once the program was outlined, an implementation team was put together led by then Training Chief Ron Bender. He and my dear friend Rob Ware faced the ire of firefighters who did not see the value of these activities. Open the doors of the fire station to the public? That will interfere with our work. Attend neighborhood meetings? We don’t have time for that. What if we get an emergency call?
Bender and Ware both taught me something extremely valuable about community outreach efforts: They must have a purpose rooted in our mission.
The firefighters were begrudgingly attending neighborhood association meetings as directed, drinking their coffee and eating their cookies, and grousing to the administration about why they were there. There was nothing to talk about. Meanwhile, the police in attendance were reviewing neighborhood crime statistics and engaging the public in solving the root problems of crime for their part of Portland.
In other words, the purpose of community policing wasn’t really about improving community relations; it was about establishing a partnership with the community that engaged them in a common purpose - to improve public safety. But it was also improving their standing in the community. So, we could eventually see that engaging the community in our mission would concurrently improve community relations.
What’s The Purpose?
So, I’ll ask again: What is the purpose of community outreach? I submit it is to improve public safety. It is to engage the community in solving problems that we cannot solve by ourselves. It is about identifying what those particular public safety problems are (i.e., a risk assessment) and then working with them to either prevent them or to mitigate the damage once they do occur.
Our goal? To manage our call volume more effectively. To improve public safety. To reduce risks of firefighter injuries or even deaths, because each time we respond we are placed at risk. And what do we get out of it? Well, improved community relations is an ancillary benefit - and it can be measured.
We can survey people pre- and post-event to find out how they feel about us. That’s good as far as it goes. But if our real goal is to improve public safety, then we can and should be measuring that.
This is an important element for all our public fire and life safety education campaigns. Our educators know this well. You thought they could be cut during your latest budget crisis? Did you know that they can help you develop and design outreach efforts with a purpose? And they can help you measure them?
Documenting how many people we’ve reached is one way to measure impacts. But documenting the fact that they have actually learned something is more concrete. Measuring whether their attitudes and behaviors have changed as a result of our efforts is another indicator of impact. And looking at successful outcomes, like reductions in incidents over time and reductions in injuries or deaths, is the brass ring of the purpose of why we exist as a public safety entity.
We can design our strategies based on the various risks each part of our community has. It could be fire, it could be medical, or it might even be something that is not part of our mission, but helping the community solve its unrelated problems might increase the likelihood that it would help us solve ours. One fire department I know (Madison, WI) used this approach effectively, and it was one of the very few during the great recession that was adding a fire station and staffing.
So, that’s the point. “Outreach” to our communities has a purpose. We can measure it. It is our mission to do so. And, we can improve our relationship with the community by having a very good reason for reaching out.