By Chief Bob Roper and Lucian Deaton
Firefighters remember the fires that impact our departments and serve as guideposts in the development of our own careers in the fire service. Yet, as we all know, the public will soon forget the threats that they’re experiencing today. Development in the wildland/urban interface (WUI) introduces new and existing residents in our communities—many of whom have pre-existing notions of what it means to live in close proximity to forest, brush, grass and wildlands—to the wildland fire threat. The Ready, Set Go! (RSG) program seeks to make them partners in the wildland fire solution.
In 2010, the IAFC—working with the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Department of the Interior, the U.S. Fire Administration, the National Fire Protection Association, the Firewise Program, the National Association of State Foresters and other national public safety organizations—introduced the RSG program to the national stage.
In 2010, the IAFC’s Ready, Set Go! (RSG) program worked with nine pilot departments across the United States to gain a better understanding of WUI communities and how best to communicate with the residents in those communities. Engaging in a dialogue ultimately protects both residents and firefighters, because it facilitates early evacuation and preparedness. Photo Keith Cullom
One of the major goals of the RSG program was to provide guidance and tools that any department can use to teach people the basics of defensible space. When done properly, defensible space successfully saves homes from the destruction of fire. Photo courtesy Firewise
Originated by the Ventura County (Calif.) Fire Department and the Orange County (Calif.) Fire Authority, the RSG program serves as a collaborative process—with an increasingly successful track record—that seeks to develop and improve the dialogue between fire departments and the WUI residents they serve. Engaging in this dialogue is particularly important for the fire service, because national studies have shown that firefighters are uniquely respected in their communities and can project a trusted voice to the public preparedness appeal. They can also explain the role that individuals can play in preparedness and early evacuation—if called for by their local officials—to increase firefighter safety during a WUI fire.
Throughout 2010, RSG worked with nine pilot departments representing Montana, Utah, Arizona, Texas, Tennessee, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The objective: to identify WUI/wildland fire-related lessons learned from different geographic and demographic areas. The lessons taken from this pilot program provide guidance and tools for any department, regardless of size or resource capability, to teach individuals how to adopt existing defensible space education tools, such as Firewise; have situational awareness when a fire starts; and to go early. To learn more about RSG concepts, visit www.wildlandfireRSG.org.
Lessons Learned in Detail
Your department may already have an active public education and outreach effort, or your department may genuinely lack the resources to keep up with multiple programs and the constant pull of daily fire suppression work. While directed at both, it is to this second group that the RSG program most focused its efforts, because even an under-resourced department can make a positive and effective difference in its community.
RSG 2010 pilot departments engaged in various efforts in attempts to resolve time, outreach and funding concerns. Below, we provide a detailed look at some of the specific lessons that resulted from those efforts. Any chief officer who is considering how their department can better connect with individuals in the community can benefit from these program lessons.
1. Develop local partnerships to discover common goals: Many RSG pilots found that working with local insurance agents, for example, helped to financially support public outreach efforts because they shared a common goal when it came to educating the public about risk and preparedness.
2. Know your media: RSG pilots in different sized markets found receptive audiences in local television programs, radio shows and newspapers. This varied from morning radio call-in shows to articles about the department to production assistance on public service announcements.
Timing is often an issue with any story, but by building a relationship with local media, you can deliver your message to your community in a timelier manner, which will allow your message to have a greater impact on the community.
3. Put the boots on the ground: All RSG pilots learned great lessons about connecting with local community groups, such as business councils, Lions Clubs and other philanthropic clubs, youth groups, churches, after-school groups, Fire Corps and community emergency response teams (CERTs). These and other similar partners can help deliver your message to a wider audience, and they can provide beneficial exposure to your department as these groups see your members out in the community, trying to make a difference.
4. Make use of homeowner meetings: RSG pilots found success in connecting with homeowner associations and sending representatives to their meetings. Attending such events allows you to customize and localize your message to the specific neighborhood or community and their unique WUI fire threat. Although these meetings are sometimes low in attendance, or it seems as though the same six people attend each time, awareness programs can still benefit from reaching those six people because the message will be passed on through word of mouth.
5. Knock on the door: There are few more powerful images than that of a firefighter in full station gear knocking on the front door of a house to deliver a short preparedness message and guidance document. This does take time, and each RSG pilot varied in how and when they could accomplish this, but each knew the benefit from being seen in their community. Even if it’s just once a year, part of a widely attended civic event, or in a focused neighborhood, the impact is strong and long-lasting.
6. Collaborate your efforts: Many pilots used the RSG program to assist in developing their community wildland fire preparedness plan and mitigation planning. Others used the home assessment approach to meet their outreach goals and to determine acreage goals for state funding.
7. Meet your state and federal partners: Identifying local, state and federal partners increases the amount of resources and the various types of resources your department will have access to in a time of need. The RSG pilots each benefited from developing closer relationships with personnel from state and federal forest service agencies, emergency management agencies and local public safety agencies.
8. Engage in internal education: Every member of your department is an ambassador to their community when it comes to life safety and fire preparedness. Therefore it’s their responsibility to learn as much as they can about both issues and how they relate to the community they serve. The RSG pilots used direction from the chief and interest within the department to engage in education. Even if time is tight, take the opportunity to discuss as a department the wildland fire risk in your area. Doing this will give your members the knowledge they need to keep the public and themselves safe.
The RSG program succeeds because it works in complimentary and collaborative fashion with Firewise and other existing wildland fire public education efforts. It amplifies the messages of these programs to better achieve the common goal we all share of developing fire-adapted communities. When firefighters encourage residents to take personal responsibility for preparing their property and family for WUI/wildland fire, residents become an active part of the solution to the problem of increasing fire losses.
At the WUI 2011 Conference last month, RSG was rolled out nationally, expanding from the nine pilot departments. We encourage you to learn more about how you can engage with individuals in your community, sit at that table of discussion, and spread the WUI/wildland fire preparedness and safety message.
For more best practices and step-by-step guidance, visit www.wildlandfireRSG.org.
Bob Roper is a 31-year veteran of the Ventura County (Calif.) Fire Department and a native of Ventura County. He began his fire service career as a volunteer firefighter and promoted through the ranks to fire chief, a position he has held for the past 14 years. He has a bachelor’s degree in business and is an Executive Fire Officer graduate and a Harvard Fellow. He is also a member of numerous local, state and national committees.
Lucian Deaton is the Wildland Fire Program Manager with the IAFC and manager of the Ready, Set, Go! Program. He has more than 10 years of experience in federal government lobbying, the last five of which were with the IAFC, representing America’s fire and EMS service. Deaton holds a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and is currently completing master’s degrees in Urban Planning and Natural Resources at Virginia Tech.
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