Who’s Telling Your Story? Use compelling "save" stories to build support for funding & enhance public education

Who’s Telling Your Story?
Use compelling "save" stories to build support for funding & enhance public education
By Chief Marc Revere

The primary role of the fire chief is to advocate for his/her agency and the fire service as a whole. A powerful way of orchestrating this is by listening to and retelling the stories of our members and those of the community. If the story is compelling enough, you can influence outcomes and behaviors and shape personal and professional change.

One Story
Let me tell you a story: One of our local school teachers took a CPR class from our public education officer. Six days later, she gathered with 40 family members for Christmas Eve, when her uncle experienced a medical emergency. Here is an excerpt of the 911 tape:

“911 emergency.”
“My uncle just died … Send help … I just took CPR from Sandy and I’m going to start CPR.”

From that point on, all the dispatcher could do was listen. Caught on tape are the rapid paces of the compression, people’s voices in the background and eventually our firefighters walking in. Then: “Clear!” prior to the shock of the defibrillator. Next: “We have a pulse!”

One could say this is a pretty typical call, even with bystander-assisted CPR. However, if you are a civilian, the chain of events and the survival of the patient as evidenced by the dispatch tape are extraordinary. As fire chief, this is a perfect story worth retelling. EMS successes are based on patient outcomes—how many people that had CPR perform on them walk out the front door of the hospital.

Now, what makes this story extraordinary is that in January the teacher’s uncle did indeed walk out the front door of the hospital. In February, the uncle, niece and crews who responded were recognized by our fire board, along with a second citizen who had assisted in a successful resuscitation. We invited the local media, who subsequently ran stories that included our speaking points about the value of CPR along with the testimonies of these two citizens and survivors. After the news articles went out, we had many more requests for CPR classes.

Leveraging stories like these, ones that put a lump in your throat, creates the potential to save many more lives.

Fire and EMS classes that teach CPR have a direct impact on victims saved. If you've heard about a citizen rescue that occurred as a result of CPR training, this can be a powerful story to share with policymakers and local government members. Photo iStock.com

More About Storytelling
Historically speaking, stories are divided into two main groups: märchen and sagen. These German terms are translated loosely as fairy tales (märchen), in a make-believe world, and legends (sagen), which are usually based on real events, often at a particular time and place; legends draw much of their power from this fact.

There are five basic elements to a compelling story:
· A theme
· Reason for the story
· People
· The setting
· Connecting the dots

Sharing Your Stories
I would guess that every one of you can share a similar story. But do you share them? If yes, with whom?

Storytelling is defined as the conveying of events in words, images and sounds, often by improvisation or embellishment. Stories have been shared in every culture as a means of entertainment, education and cultural preservation, and to instill moral values. Traditionally, oral stories are committed to memory and then passed from generation to generation.

My wife and I have two grown children and our get-togethers with extended family are all about making new memories (future stories) and reliving old ones. With three generations of firefighters in our family, we often embellish our stories. (This is true with most families, but especially those with fire service members!) Think of all the alarms you have been on over the years. Without notes, you tell your stories over and over. It’s how we learn; maintain our tradition, culture and values; and recall important events. Where were you on September 11, 2001? There’s a story there—one I’m sure you have told.

Listening to a well-told story is often more memorable than reading one. Abraham Lincoln read books aloud so that he better remembered them. Instructor training teaches us that people remember 70% of what they see and hear—if people hear a compelling story, they rarely forget it. In fact, storytelling is so important that it’s a part of the curriculum in the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program.

Making the Story Work for You
Recently, I testified to our local retirement board. Our firefighters’ retirement fund took an incredible loss last year because of the economy, and the board was trying to determine how each agency was going to individually fund their respective accounts back to pre-2009 levels. The suggested methodology would increase our budget by 15% ($1.5 million) and would continue to escalate for the next 5 years. This would force reductions in service and possibly the loss of jobs.

The county, a local city and our fire district are the three largest contributors to the fund, so we asked to make a presentation to the board explaining our concerns. I positioned us to go last. The county administrator and city financial director made their presentations based on great graphs and spreadsheets. I, in turn, followed these presentations by telling stories, including the CPR event that I just shared with you, as well as one involving a recent three-alarm fire. These stories demonstrated how each agency relies on one another. If these retirement fund increases were approved, our operational readiness, safety and wellbeing for the communities (including our firefighters) in the county could be in jeopardy.

This was not a “dead baby” speech, but a story with real people and real consequences. We owed the money; that was not in question. The question was how to pay it. General accounting practices (GAP) indicated that it should be funded as quickly as possible. I suggested that using the traditional methods for this nontraditional event may not be the best choice. In fact, I said that the accounting procedures that got us in this mess couldn’t be expected to get us out. As Albert Einstein once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Our story, combined with an analytical approach, prevailed. Instead of an aggressive repayment formula, the retirement board agreed to smooth out the cost over multiple years, allowing us to manage our liability.

Some board members argued that this method placed an unnecessary financial burden on future taxpayers. I acknowledged this; however, in this case the retirement board lost our funds through their investment policies. We have no say in what or how they invest, but are financially responsible for their failures. With a positive story outlining our mutual interests, ongoing partnership, and history of support and collaboration, I subtly shared with them that we didn’t want to have their loses negatively impact our operational readiness. It was in all our best interests to ensure that did not occur. In the end, they agreed.

Learning from Your Stories
Last year we received several new command vehicles, each equipped with a forward-facing video camera similar to the ones in police vehicles. Around the same time we received a thermal imagining camera (TIC) from Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company, and both were quickly placed into service. Neither of these advances is new, but a series of events provided us with another compelling story—one that supports a public/private partnership that helped save four firefighters’ lives.

At approximately 0300 HRS, our crews responded to a restaurant fire in our downtown area. Heavy smoke could be seen before the first company arrival. The battalion chief established command with his vehicle facing the fire. The vehicle’s camera captures the crew making entry, assessing the initial fire conditions and then backing out, 30 seconds before a flashover of the entire occupancy. This is a very intense video, and the story was enhanced by the captain, who took the TIC in with him. His training and experience factored in his decision to back out (risk vs. benefit), ensuring our primary objective was met: Everyone goes home.

Before midmorning, we shared the video with the press and they told our story, which included a PSA on fire safety, smoke detectors, and sprinkler systems, etc., to the community. Internally, we were able to present the operational lessons learned to our crews and show what went right. Thus we leveraged this knowledge to shape future operations and successful outcomes, turning formal storytelling into lessons learned, then shared.

Leadership is all about the leader’s attention and occasional storytelling. Facts and figures should drive our decision-making. However, to capture the hearts and minds of our members and citizens, weaving a compelling story around the facts can assist you in positioning, influencing and reinforcing what’s important.

So, what’s your story?

Marc Revere is the fire chief of the Novato Fire Protection District, an Internationally Accredited Agency in Marin County, Calif. He has 34 years in the fire service and is an EFO, CFO and a Harvard Fellow. In 2010, Chief Revere became the first recipient of the Ronny Jack Coleman Leadership and Legacy Award from the Commission on Public Safety Excellence.

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Comment by Tiger Schmittendorf on January 27, 2011 at 11:16pm
Chief -

The title of your article caught my attention as I am the author of www.runtothecurb.com and the host of www.firefighterstorytellers.com Internet Radio Show.

Needless to say, I'm very focused on the importance of storytelling in the fire service. In fact, here's my take on the matter: http://tigerschmittendorf.com/2009/09/01/fortune-tellers/

Shannon shared your email address with me and I'd like to connect. Talk to you soon. Thanks for carrying the torch on the importance of storytelling.

Stay safe. Train often.

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