Power of the Pen

This article is one in a series of toolkits focusing on recruitment, retention, fire service marketing and leadership.



Here’s the deal: It’s past midnight, I’m 7+ hours past deadline and the piece I’m writing about another county-based recruitment clearinghouse example isn’t ready for publication.

Then I started thinking, this article is for the July issue. July means summertime. Everyone deserves a summer break. So, let’s take the summer off from talking about clearinghouses and discuss some tools you already have in your toolbox: The power of the pen.

Promoting Your Fire Department to the Public

Several years ago, I decided that firefighting wasn’t dangerous enough, so I took up public speaking. Since then, I’ve come to realize that everyone is not like me. [Now, that’s an understatement.]

It amazes me that the same people who will run into a burning building while all the sane people are running out, will also drown in a puddle of sweat when someone sticks a camera or microphone in their face. Some people fear public speaking over death itself, or closely correlate the two.

Does your fire department have a Public Information Officer – a PIO? Every FD should, regardless of size or call volume.

The fact is that many people are more comfortable at the keyboard than in front of the camera and that’s OK.

Simply put, there is power in the pen. Getting the word out about what your fire department is doing for its community is an important but, seemingly never ending task. However, it doesn’t have to be an expensive or time consuming one if you’re smart about it.

I write a lot. I mean a lot. I write for this publication, South Dakota’s and (apparently) Vermont’s Volunteer Firefighter Association newspapers; Firehouse.com and The Fire Fighter Newspaper – our local publication that I was managing editor of for seven years.

I have my blog at www.firefighternation.com/profile/Tiger5 and I also write as a featured blogger for the Buffalo News citizen journalism site at http://buffalo.yourhub.com/~Tiger. I also write frequent submissions for two local publications, the now defunct Town Crier and The Sun (www.thesunnews.net).

When I was public information officer for my fire company, we worked very hard at keeping our fire department’s name in the news. It has paid off with big dividends. People noticed. It put us on the map.

I contributed news stories about incidents we responded to and activities we participated in, and I also wrote a lot of fire and life safety articles.

This is where it’s easy to keep your fire department name as “top of mind” in the minds of your customers – the citizens you serve.

I like to employ my three favorite methods of finding information to write about: Begging, borrowing and stealing!

There is so much safety information out there in the public domain that your ideas don’t always have to be original. Nobody will blame you for carrying the torch on planning exit drills in the home, or changing your working smoke detector batteries when we change to and from daylight savings time. And no one will chastise you for encouraging others “not to be a turkey about Thanksgiving safety.”

In fact, that’s a blog I wrote and a press release I sent to the local papers in time for publication just before last Thanksgiving. Did I dream up all the catchy phrases and safety tips myself?

No. Of course not. I’m not that bright.

I simply borrowed the intent of a fire safety posting I gathered from another nationally known source: the Los Angeles Fire Department. LAFD is the talk of the town when it comes to communicating with their community. Check out: lafd.blogspot.com. I steal allow them to lend me their ideas all the time.

Phoenix FD is the King of Public Information. Check out their web site at http://www.phoenix.gov/FIRE/ and take a close look at their Certified Fire Journalist Media Academy under the Public Affairs section.

We’re “lucky” to have Las Vegas PIO Tim Szymanski share their press releases at www.lasvegasnevada.gov. Tim’s on top of his game when it comes to the PIO gig. He’s a featured columnist in print and on the web and even has his own web site at www.lvfdpio.com.Florida offers the Sunshine State Association of PIOs and they put their resources on their web site (www.ffca.org) for all to share. There’s even a national organization for PIOs at www.nioa.org. 

Oh yeah, then there’s the United States Fire Administration page at: www.usfa.dhs.gov where you can sign up to be part of their MediaCorps and they’ll e-mail you safety topics right to your inbox. They actually encourage you to cut, paste and personalize the information. And, just like all of the other great sources, it doesn’t cost a dime.

And unlike advertisements, press releases don’t cost anything to publish. Enhance the story with a photo whenever you can.

If it’s free – it’s for me! That’s the best.

Nothing Breeds Success Like Success Itself:

You’ll notice that all of our press releases end with a consistent recruitment message. It’s the punch line to the fact that joining the volunteer fire service is no joke and it could be right for them.

We simply pounce at every opportunity to get our recruitment message out to our target audience.

As an effective means of both recruitment and retention, we write a press release to announce new additions to our team every time someone joins our fire company.

Written properly, these types of advertorials can breed real success.

Hopefully, it makes the reader think: “If (insert name of someone they know or respect in the community) belongs to this organization, then maybe it’s an organization I want to belong to as well.” [I believe they call that subliminal peer pressure.]

Listing the names and backgrounds of your new volunteers introduces them to the community, demonstrates your pride in them being a new part of your team, and makes them proud to see their name in print and associated with your fine organization. Instilling pride and self-worth helps set the stage for their success in your fire department.

Furthermore, as more and more people join your fire company, and you write about it, the potential candidate reading the press release might simply be impressed by the numbers and come to the conclusion that: “If all of these people are joining – it must be an organization worth joining.”

After all, twelve or more citizens can’t be wrong… Right?

When it comes to motivating citizens to act, this type of promotion further demonstrates that there’s power in numbers.

And, as you can see in the press releases I’ve posted to my blog, the numbers don’t lie.

A Little Chronological Coordination Goes a Long Way:

Think seasonally. Thanksgiving is in November. Black Friday officially starts the Christmas season. Any seasonal safety messages come to mind?

Think flooding, battery changing and horseback riding in the spring. Think pool, grille and sunburn safety in the summer and wood burner safety and fire prevention week in the fall.

We just celebrated National Volunteer Week and EMS Week in May; and Home Safety Month in June. The first celebration of CPR/AED Awareness Week was June 1-7.

Make a list. Make a calendar. Before long, you’ve got your four seasons covered and you’ve got all your safety bases covered with the community.

Just remember that when you’re employing the “borrowing” or “stealing” methods of information “sharing,” be sure to at least acknowledge the source. It gives credit where credit is due, helps drive traffic to their site, and it lends credibility to your information, especially if it’s from a recognized source.

The sources are endless. The idea is to keep your name in front of the public by putting the information in their hands that they need to keep your community a safer place to live, work and play. It’s a win-win baby!

They win with information that can save their lives and you win with the recognition, admiration and support that only the fire department can muster from the community. Nobody trusts anyone more than they trust the fire department.

Making Something out of Nothing?

Even the best of PIOs go through a dry spell and struggle for something newsworthy to promote once in a while. Some call it writer’s block. Others call it a brain cramp.

It only takes a little imagination (or inspiration) to get out of this slump, even when you don’t think you have anything that’s of relevance to your target audience: the public.

I half-jokingly say that if someone goes to the bathroom in our firehouse – we write a press release about it.

I get inspired (Reads: Steal Ideas) by reading other PIOs’ press releases.

Here’s one example of twisting what some might consider nothing – into something.

Did your fire department participate in Fire/EMS Safety, Health and Survival Week (June 24-28) – the event formerly known as the National Firefighter Stand-down?

The IAFC web site (www.iafc.org) outlines the focus and some suggested plans for the week.

Heed their advice. Take advantage of this great opportunity to make your firefighters and first responders safer. Then make hay while the sun shines and promote the fact that you’re doing something to make sure your firefighters go home to their families after every run.

Visit my blog site and you can download a press release I crafted for last year’s stand-down. It’s not too late. There’s nothing that says you can’t talk about it after the fact.

While you might not initially think that such activities are pertinent to the public, writing about your efforts to make yourselves safer gives the community a real (as in: not false) sense of security, that you’re in turn making them safer. Trust me. They like that feeling.

That can win you some brownie points with your community and, for those of you keeping score at home, we need all the points we can get these days.

Make sure you get your agency involved in National Fire/EMS Safety Week next year. Write or otherwise brag about it.

Use these ideas to your advantage by keeping your audience informed, keeping them safe and keeping your fire department in the public eye.

Keep it real, keep it local, and keep it safe.

Let me know how it turns out.

Check out the examples I’ve posted and tell your story in the PIO discussion group I’ve established at: www.firefighternation.com/group/eriectypios. That’s what PIOs do.


Editor’s Note: Recruitment slogans, programs or themes described herein may be the copyrighted intellectual property of the author or other parties. Please contact the author before reprinting or using such content.