Good outcomes in communities before, during and after a wildfire event are dependent upon a holistic look at the risk and effective, ongoing community engagement by firefighters, residents and all partners in an area.
Good communication allows all participants to feel that their perspectives are heard and valued and increases willingness to participate in promoting wildfire safety. This is the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Whole Community approach.
You can engage the whole community in good conversations about wildfire safety projects. Actions that can be taken in person with social distancing in mind or virtually include:
Prepare for your meeting
Get to know your audience; use publicly available data analytics sites such as City-Data.com or other resources to help you. This information will help to ensure that what you bring to your initial meeting is relevant to the interests and language of that audience.
How you dress can also make a big difference in how well your message is received. For example, if you are meeting with ranchers, do not plan to wear a suit.
Learn more about what people value
Ask questions of your audience and really listen; write down what they are telling you on a white board to confirm that you have accurately heard and understood them.
Provide additional opportunities for people to provide input. This will help ensure that you have a clear understanding of the different concerns people are bringing to the table and conveys the value of different opinions. For example, create a simple survey with room for a comment or question that they can fill out online. Some people may not be comfortable bringing up a concern or asking a question during a meeting.
Provide a summary at the end of the conversation to validate findings and continue the conversation.
Involve the whole community
Good communication encourages back-and-forth conversation and good idea exchange. Approach communication opportunities in an open and fair way.
For in-person meetings, choose a neutral ground in the community, such as a fairground, library or school, or set up a virtual meeting at a time that works best for your audience.
Create an actionable project plan that can be completed within a short time frame. This helps participants feel that their input is valued and creates a sense of accomplishment.
Give everyone the opportunity to participate. Partnerships help leverage limited resources and bring together needed skill sets. They can also help identify critical risks to address, such as completing Community Wildfire Protection Plans or all-hazard mitigation plans, or encouraging community-wide activities like chipping programs, community cleanup days or virtual workdays when everyone is working individually on the same day.
Ownership of projects to mitigate risk should be shared by all. No one organization or individual needs to be in charge of everything.
Provide opportunities for different people to have a leadership role, such as securing resources needed, promoting the project on social media, organizing the work parties needed, etc. This can encourage participation and support for wildfire safety planning and project work.
Learning to communicate effectively can help build good relationships with residents in wildfire-prone regions and enable communities to plan and complete wildfire safety project work to improve community resilience.
Continuity of effort/Creating sustainable effort to build resilient communities
Tips for starting conversations
- Use publicly available data analytics sites such as City-Data.com or other resources to get to know the demographics of your community.
- Choose a neutral ground for your meeting or meet virtually.
- Use a conversation starter and start by listening; create opportunities for everyone’s opinion to be valued.
- Document suggestions by writing them down during your meeting; this helps ensure that you identify which ideas are most important.
- Identify recognized leaders in your community (go to clubs, district events, school board meetings, etc.).
Pick one simple, easy project to complete and thus create a sense of ownership in success!
For more information
A guide for developing conversation-starter questions for in-person or virtual community wildfire safety planning meetings. Included are questions to help meeting attendees engage on unique wildfire risks and potential opportunities to create a safer place to live, work and play.
Best practices in risk and crisis communication: Implications for natural hazards management.
This article brings together best risk and crisis communications practices found in literature to derive the key characteristics for effective wildfire and natural hazards communication.
Community engagement: Definitions and organizing concepts from the literature.
From Principles of Community Engagement, this chapter includes concepts, models and frameworks that can be used to guide and inspire efforts to meet community engagement challenges.
Ideas from Ready.gov for how you can take action in your community before an emergency or a disaster occurs.
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: Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times