The COVID-19 crisis offers communication lessons for volunteer fire department leaders
By Rick Markley
In the coming months and years, many lessons will emerge from this COVID-19 pandemic. Some lessons will be learned. Others, surely, will go unlearned. How various leaders have communicated with the public during the crisis is something volunteer fire service leaders can learn from. And while these lessons can apply to any major crisis volunteer departments face, there’s one in particular worth closer examination.
One of the more unsettling things that seems to happen about once every couple of months somewhere in the U.S. is a mass resignation at a volunteer fire department. Sure, the circumstances are unique to each case. But there are some common threads. Often it comes down to firefighters in a long-running, unresolved conflict with each other, with the chief or with the municipal leaders. At times, it is the chief who has locked horns with a municipal body and the mass resignation is in support of their embattled or ousted chief.
Most often the local media outlets quote the resigning firefighters or their designated spokesperson saying how much they love being firefighters and serving their community, but can see no other way around the impasse. And there’s no reason to doubt their sincerity. Most of us joined for the right reasons. Most of us stay for the right reasons. Some find ourselves in similar no-win conflicts. And a few of us feel the only recourse is to walk away.
Another common thread is the response from those left behind to pick up the pieces. The chief or the person hastily appointed interim chief will almost certainly say something like, “The residents can rest assured they will get the same level of emergency services. We have agreements in place with all our neighboring communities who will run calls to our area as we bring new members on to the fire department. The town will not go unprotected from fire, rescue and medical emergencies.”
We know this isn’t entirely true. Emergency response can’t be rerouted like a passenger jet avoiding turbulence or causing a walrus stampede. Decades of institutional and community knowledge (all those firefighters with all that time on the department) can’t be instantly replaced by freshly trained recruits or mutual-aid partners. At best, residents can expect longer response time due to greater travel distances and less familiarity with the streets. At worst, when there is a major incident or multiple incidents, residents can expect an overtaxed system that cannot respond effectively if at all.
Yet it is easy to understand why a leader would say such things when an entire department has walked off the job. The public wants reassurance and the person in charge wants to show competence.
Here’s where lessons from crisis communication come into play. Many crisis communication experts agree there are a few steps every leader should take during a crisis. They need to communicate early, often and consistently. They need to communicate clearly. They need to communicate honestly. And they need to communicate that they empathize with those effected by the crisis.
You see leaders such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ticking off these boxes with his daily televised news conferences on COVID-19, of which New York has become the country’s epicenter. Likewise, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, has been successfully balancing being compassionate, blunt, forthright and measured.
For volunteer fire departments, the best way around a mass resignation is to not get into this mess in the first place. Recognizing and solving the problems while they are small is much easier than trying to sort out years of ill will. But that’s like telling a young couple confronting an unwanted pregnancy to abstain or use protection — sound advice before the fact, useless after the fact.
When a town is suddenly without volunteer firefighters, the leader tasked with addressing the residents in person and via media outlets needs to own up to the facts. Fire, rescue and (where applicable) EMS protection will suffer.
- Explain how much it will suffer under normal conditions and how much it could suffer under extreme conditions.
- Let them know you have a plan.
- Explain what is being done to offset these risks, how much time that is likely to take and how much money that is likely to cost.
- Over communicate this message through multiple channels like in-person meetings, media and social media outlets — and update often and honestly.
Finally, don’t use this crisis communication platform to chuck mud at adversaries. While entertaining, the public doesn’t need to see the volunteer department’s Three Stooges-esque food fight. Rather than demonize the firefighters, recognize and publicly communicate gratitude that, despite the current situation, many have devoted countless hours to protect the community. This will convey professionalism to the community and may help heal old wounds — there may be a way to reopen the door for some of those walked-off volunteer firefighters.
Every crisis is an opportunity to learn, grow and improve. Employing the lessons from a major crisis can strengthen the bonds between a volunteer department and those it serves.