One volunteer department turned it’s human capital into massive goodwill returns; here’s how they did it.
By Robert Butcher, National Volunteer Fire Council
Every business strives to quantify their return on investment. While most look at this from a dollars and cents perspective, the fire and emergency medical services measure it in a different way. We all know we are the only business that shines on people’s worst day. We show up to buildings on fire, cars destroyed by accidents, and lives in peril, and at the end of it, people thank us for showing up and doing our best.
But what happens days and weeks after the event? Are you really making an effort to continue helping your customers, or does your service to those people stop once you close the doors on your apparatus and drive away? How do we continue to let the public know we care and will do whatever we can to help them, even after the emergency is over?
Sure, we provide reports to insurance companies and brochures to help homeowners after they have a fire, but do we really ever know if that information is truly useful or not? I know what you’re thinking: “We barely have time to do what we already do, let alone perform some sort of follow-up.” Or, “We can’t afford to have someone focused strictly on a follow-up program.”
As this decade starts to fade into the sunset, so are many departments’ resources. We are continually told to do more with less. However, when you consider your return on investment, it becomes clear that you can’t afford NOT to continually reach out and engage your citizens, for one day you will need them as much as they need you.
The Burlington (KY) Fire Protection District found a solution to becoming more involved in the community without taking away from limited resources. In 2016 two of our “retired” volunteer safety officers, Harry Pickett and John “Lou” Malloy, approached the fire chief, Jeff Barlow, with an idea. They wanted to go make hospital visits on a weekly basis to check on our patients that had been admitted. There was no survey to hand out, no ulterior motive on their part; it was just an act of kindness from them to our patients. In addition, these two gentlemen wanted to go into our elementary schools during lunch and visit with the kids. They are fully aware of pressures kids face today while in school and wanted to bring a smile to their faces.
An idea was born from two members that were no longer able engage the public on a “combat” level, yet still wanted to serve them. Chief Barlow was ecstatic about it and gave his full support. With the help of our administrative assistant, known by many as the “glue” that holds the department together, Harry and Lou were ready to embark on a new journey.
Every week they receive a list of patient names we have transported to local hospitals. Once they arrive, the volunteers working the reception desk tell them who is still in the hospital and the patient room numbers. Harry and John introduce themselves to the patient and proceed to have a short visit. Their motive is simple: let people know the department is thinking about them as they deal with their illness. While Harry and John know they walk in on people dealing with very serious circumstances, they believe laughter is the best medicine. In fact, because of their good humor and personalities many of the nurses now know Harry and John by name and look forward to Wednesday when they come to visit. In addition to this, while not weekly, Harry and John find time to visit our school kids, and the teachers and administrators are always thrilled to see them walk through the door.
Harry and John fully embody the spirit of the fire service and the department. They have over 90 years of experience between them. Harry has been a volunteer with Burlington for over 50 years. John started as a volunteer in Essington, PA, over 30 years ago and joined Burlington in 2006 when he moved to Kentucky.
The District’s core values center on the community and department, with a key value being benevolence to those with whom we interact. The Oxford English Dictionary defines benevolence as the “quality of being well meaning.” Harry and John embody this and genuinely show it with each week that goes by. We are very proud to have them walk amongst us, and while their roles may have changed, their contribution to the department and the community has not. Some say they have gotten better with age.
When we look back on what we now call our benevolence program, it’s so simple, yet so ingenious. Plain and simple we are a department that proves anyone, at any age, can play a meaningful part. I feel this would be a great job not only for “retired” volunteers, but also for career firefighters on light duty or any individual involved in a department’s public education division or auxiliary/Fire Corps program. Your agency could even expand the program to meet with local businesses or civic groups to answer questions, share stories, or pass out data to show the efficiency of your agency.
In a day and age where every penny counts you need to be able to prove you’re making good use of each one. As public service providers, this program proves the only “profit” we care about is a public that knows we care about them. Building these relationships helps strengthen the trust the community has in the department and the work that we do.
Your agency’s return on investment can easily be determined by simple programs like this one. Engaging the public during non-crisis situations allows your department to gather basic information from your customers on how you are doing. This information is vital to the health of your department. It provides input that will help shape the direction of the department. Changes in policies, procedures, or yearly goals can take place because of programs like these. Turning a blind eye to problems or not being willing to even investigate the possibility that there are problems will eventually catch up with the organization and its leadership.
Our department’s bottom line is revealed through a recent follow-up letter the department received about our benevolence program. The letter states:
To Whom It May Concern,
John Malloy and Harry Pickett joined me at Saint Elizabeth Hospital in Edgewood. They were checking on a patient who entered on January 5, then had to go to Gateway therapy on January 16. It was great to hear from them and their caring attitude. Their follow-up was unreal. I thanked them and said I had not seen or heard of anyone doing what they did. The safety officers from Burlington were very nice. You should [be] (and I am) very proud of them. We should all be proud of all safety officers. This was my first adventure of this ‘checking-in’ and I want to send thanks to all safety officers. Thank you!
Robert Butcher, EMT-P, is an assistant chief with the Burlington Fire Protection District. He has been serving the citizens of various Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati communities as a firefighter/EMT, firefighter/paramedic, EMS educator, and service director for 30 years.