A massive response to the Meadowbrook Waldorf School last weekend proved crucial in helping to combat a fully-engulfed building, but it took 250 firefighters from more than two-dozen agencies to stop the blaze from spreading to a nearby wooded area or damaging the school’s playground facilities.
Of those 250, according to Richmond-Carolina Fire Chief Scott Barber, the vast majority were unpaid volunteers trained to serve their community in a time of need.
“If not for the hard work and professionalism of all these guys, who knows what would have happened,” Barber said on Tuesday while at the Watch Hill Fire Department in support of a fire-service program.
Across southwestern Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut, volunteers are the backbones of the fire-service community, and social media is changing the way agencies are able to communicate with the public and recruit.
“It’s become an important part of our overall efforts,” said Dunn’s Corners Fire Lt. Jeffrey Thomas. “Speaking candidly, there are many times that people just don’t realize we are volunteer. Our efforts online are one way to highlight that aspect and encourage people to take an interest.”
In Westerly, there are just seven paid staff between the four fire agencies, with no more than three paid staff at any single department, including at the Westerly Fire Department on Union Street. The rest of the town’s force is made up entirely of volunteers. A similar system is in place in Stonington, while other area towns are virtually entirely volunteer, including the chiefs.
Without the use of social media, especially with today’s fast-paced lifestyles, agencies would likely struggle to keep departments fully staffed.
“People aren’t looking at the fliers in their mailboxes or our community brochures the way they once did. Everything now is online, (and) they are seeing and hearing about us on social media,” Old Mystic Fire Chief Kenneth Richards Jr. said.
For Old Mystic, Richards said recruitment successes in recent years have been sparked by the commitment to online recruiting. His agency was recognized in late 2016 on a national level after expanding its ranks by about 25 percent, and Richards said Friday that nearly a third of all new recruits had learned about the opportunity online.
Social media efforts have included not only volunteer announcements online, Richards said, but also providing the public with a sample of what the department does by highlighting training and response, showing off new equipment or vehicles, and recognizing dedicated members through regular posts.
Other agencies in the region have even taken it a step further. The Hope Valley-Wyoming Fire Department earlier this year put out a fully produced video which they pinned to the top of their Facebook page that has caught the attention of agencies across southern New England and resulted in a lot of Facebook shares.
Hope Valley-Wyoming Fire Chief Justin Lee could not be reached Friday for further comment.
When it comes to Westerly’s fire departments, all four are regularly active online and work with one another. Watch Hill Fire Chief Robert Peacock said his agency has a website, Facebook page, Twitter handle and Instagram accounts and uses them every Sunday at a minimum in an effort to keep regular communication with the public.
“We utilize a ‘Social Media Sunday’ plan in which, every week, we post something across all four (Westerly) departments and across all platforms. It’s an effort to make sure we stay active and are keeping all of our accounts up-to-date,” he said.
Peacock said the department also utilizes a Social Media Committee to keep track of information, including the number of impressions a post gets, the reactions from the public and more. He said the goal of the committee is to better understand what impact these posts have and how they can be better used as not only a recruitment tool but to better retain employees.
Across town, as Dunn’s Corners prepares to celebrate 75 years of service to the community, the agency is also celebrating five years of active presence on Facebook. Thomas said the agency launched its page in late 2012 and, in recent years, has taken to regular use of the platform.
Thomas and Dunn’s Corners Fire Chief Christopher DeGrave said they, too, post everything from announcements to photographs of training, noting that it helps build a sense of pride in the department and can actually not only encourage new volunteers but also motivate those already with the agency.
While social media is a good tool in the process, however, every fire official questioned this week also noted that it’s just one part of a far-reaching, comprehensive plan that includes working with other agencies, utilizing federal funds available through the International Association of Fire Fighters, and maintaining existing boots-on-the-ground efforts such as billboards and word of mouth.
“We need to remain dynamic,” DeGrave said. “The latest and greatest technology is good, but it’s not an end-all solution. We need to be able to adapt and to hit a wide range of demographics that get their information in a variety of different ways.”