Monday, 26 August 2019

Our local first responders—firefighters, police officers, and emergency medical service (EMS)—help keep our communities safe in a multitude of ways.

In addition to springing into action when we need them most, they also spend untold hours reaching out via official and casual channels to help get across critical safety information.

So how does a community say thank you? Surprisingly, saying "thank you" is a “nice to have," not a must-have.

“Firefighters across the board will emphatically tell you that they were just 'doing their job,' and recognition is not necessary," says Michelle Tanzola, Public Information and Marketing Manager for the Austin Fire Department.

“We're not saints or Samaritans. We're people who happen to have a great job and do it because we love it," says Rick Rutledge, deputy PIO Austin-Travis County EMS (which is separate from the fire department).

The best way to say thanks

The absolute best way to show your appreciation for first-responder service is to send a card or letter. If someone in particular helped you, try and include them in a communication to the chief, and you can always call the department if you didn't catch their name at the scene.

“Those types of recognition will go into an employee's permanent file. They're always looked at when it comes time for promotion or a special assignment," says Mark Keller, public information officer for Savannah Fire and Emergency Services in Georgia.

Depending on where you live, there may be fund-raisers for department activities such as child car-seat drives, safe baby academies, and toy donations for traumatized kids on scene. That kind of engagement is fine to participate in on behalf of you and your business, but make sure the call for help is legit, and not a shadowy scam operator out to make a buck from your goodwill.

What not to do

Gestures and words from the heart—not the wallet—are always welcome and appreciated," says Tanzola.

It's never OK to offer cash or gift cards as a way to show thanks—most departments have rules against accepting them. “I've had some strange offers, generally from people who own or run businesses," says Rutledge.

So even if you want to offer free dry cleaning or a deal on car service—don't. While some departments welcome homemade baked goods, others have safety policies that forbid them for health reasons. What if an entire squad got sick from accidentally tainted cupcakes? If you must, you're safer bringing something from a store or licensed bakery, says Keller.

Say hello

Sometimes it's fine to approach a local hero, and sometimes it's not. Times when it's OK include:

  • Outreach events: "It can be safety fairs or church events or whatever. If the ambulances can get by there, it's kind of fun to stop by for a few minutes," Rutledge says. At work, not involved in the throes of an emergency: It's fine to say a quick thank you, Keller says. “That goes a long way. It really helps a firefighter's state of mind."
  • At the fire station: Keller says if the bay door is open and the truck isn't on its way to or from an incident, “Fire stations are inviting places. …While you are getting your blood pressure taken, just tell them thank you. Just, 'Thanks for  the job that you do and hopefully you don't ever have to come to my house.'" 

When it's not OK to approach:

  • During an emergency—and don't try to pitch in: “We don't encourage citizens to try and help because our equipment can be deadly," Keller says. “If a hose came unhooked from a fire truck, it could have deadly consequences, and so that is why we try and keep people back from our scenes. That is why we tape off our scenes like police tape off their scenes." 
  • On the phone: Don't tie up emergency or department phone lines just to say thanks, Rutledge says—keep the lines clear for people who really need help.

And if you see a responder in uniform around the community (at the coffee shop, for instance), you may want to feel out the situation before starting a conversation. Rutledge says the extra attention can make some responders uncomfortable because they're just doing their jobs.

 “We're people who happen to have a great job and do it because we love it, so thank you always makes me uncomfortable," he says. “Really, I just enjoy what I do. It's an excellent job and I have found it to be my calling."


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