Building Community Equity: A Proven Best Practice

Everything we do in the fire and rescue services is both for people – and with people. Thus, building partnerships within your community is vitally important to sustaining and growing your organization.

First, let’s define the term “community equity.” Think of the relationship between your community and your organization as being similar to a joint bank account. Each party makes deposits, and one or more depositors may also make withdrawals from time to time.

When your organization is in need of something from the community, it’s crucial that you’ve first made deposits into the bank of community equity. That equity is not derived from monetary investments, but more importantly, it comes from investments in trust, loyalty, respect, pride and even admiration for the services you provide and the people who provide them.

“Community Equity” is best described as the good will, positive image, supportive relationship and strong connection you enjoy, or desire with your community.

Your community needs your organization to be available to respond to their emergencies every day, whether they call on you or not.


“Treat every public interaction as a public service, public education, public relations and a recruitment opportunity.”
In an on-camera interview with Pete Dontje, Volunteer Coordinator for the City of Beaufort SC Fire Department, he shared how he practices this adapt-and-overcome attitude every day:

“My advice to fellow recruiters is to get out and meet the members of your community, visit businesses, restaurants, schools, military bases; anywhere you have in your jurisdiction that allows you to reach a greater population of people. The connections you make in the community will last a lifetime and will benefit your department in ways you haven’t even thought about.”

We know why the community needs fire and emergency services, but why might we need community partners in return?


Can you think of an instance where having a loyal and supporting community partner might be beneficial to your volunteer organization?

Do you ever need fundraising or financial support?

Do you need more volunteers?

Are there important life safety messages that you need to promote in your community?

And lastly, does your relationship with the community need improvement due to something negative that’s happened to them, or that has happened to you?


Now that we’ve established the importance of creating community partnerships, you need to ask: who do you want to build a relationship with?

Some examples of organizations to partner with:

  • Schools
  • Youth Organizations
  • Churches
  • Civic Organizations
  • Businesses
  • Government officials and agencies
  • Local media outlets

As we examine this list of potential partners, your goal should be to match the appropriate partner with the relevant reason you need a partner for.

Most importantly, you should ask yourself: how is building this relationship going to benefit all the organizations involved?

Give thought to how your chosen community partner can benefit from your need for funding or support for a project; or your desire to raise awareness of the volunteering opportunities you offer; or your interest in educating the public about certain safety issues?

For example, in his interview with First Arriving, Chief Keith Minick of the City of Newberry SC Fire Department discussed how they saw a need for greater diversity in their fire department.

To address their goal, they created a committee of stakeholders from different backgrounds to help them look at their community, compare it to their fire department, and come up with a plan to better educate their community on their need and desire to have their membership more representative of the likeness of their community.

Their stakeholders represent city council, schools, small business owners, youth organizations, and their faith-based community. That broad cross-section of their community provides them with the insight they need to be successful in their department more closely mirroring the makeup of the city and county they serve.

Recruiter Mike Ehrmanntraut from the Richburg Fire Department in South Carolina, Mike shared his grassroots perspective on building partnerships:

“We are the community. The community built us and funds us. Both our apparatus floor and the training room are open to the community to use for events and meeting rooms. That’s how we get the community into our firehouse, giving us a captive audience for the messages we want to share. That gets us the support we need to serve our community to the level they deserve.”

“We fulfill our part in the partnership by sponsoring an annual Christmas parade and participating in our community’s Christmas tree lighting and the Richburg fall festival. We always make sure that we have a truck and a crew there interacting with the community as well,” the captain added.


Once you have identified who you want to partner with, and why you need them as a partner, then the next step is to take action.

For instance, If you want to join forces with a particular business, then go talk to that business and tell them your vision for what that partnership might entail. Or, if you just want to talk to your business community in general, then take advantage of opportunities such as a chamber or business networking events where you are more likely to meet the people you wish to speak with directly.

In either case, lead with the facts — but don’t leave out the story.
Especially when it comes to fundraising and financial support, sometimes the best way to pull at their purse strings … is to tug at their heart strings.

Chief Mike Huppman of Clear Spring Fire Rescue in Greenville SC shared this recent heartwarming story about community engagement:

“Last week, I went out for lunch and as I was leaving, there was a young man at the counter with his mom; and having once been a kid interested in the fire service myself, I knew he’d be interested too. So, I went out to my car and got him a badge and brought it back in and gave it to him. I stopped back at that same restaurant a few days later and the young lady behind the counter couldn’t believe that we were willing to go over and do that and how excited the young boy was, that we had given him that badge. She said his face just lit right up. And he was all-smiles the rest of the day. That was kind of a nice feeling.”

While data drives business decisions, stories and human connectivity drive community equity and buy-in. Let’s be honest, nobody has better stories to tell than firefighters and first responders!

For example, if your Fire-EMS department needs to replace existing equipment or purchase gear for a new mission you’re taking on, you might tell a story of how that equipment might have made a difference in the outcome of a particular incident. Focus on how the equipment will benefit your volunteers and the people they serve. Leverage the power of stories to gain the support you need.


We all know that many relationships sour because of poor communication. Once you’ve collaborated with another group, be sure you are effectively building (and maintaining) the bridge of communications concerning your expectations and needs within the partnership.

If you’ve asked your partner for financial support, keep them in the loop on how you’re doing in achieving your overall fundraising goal. If they’ve helped you purchase new equipment, keep them posted on delivery, installation and implementation.

When new members join your organization, be sure to let your partners know how their contributions are improving your recruitment efforts.

The next time there’s a fire in your neighborhood and your fire safety initiatives made a life-saving difference, don’t forget to acknowledge the partners who helped promote your public education efforts.

Most importantly, never pass up the opportunity to say THANK YOU! It costs nothing, but it will earn you enormous deposits into your community equity account.

Richburg’s Mike Ehrmanntraut added:

“Every month we compile a report that we give to the Town of Richburg. That report puts us in front of the mayor and the town council regularly, making sure that they know what we’re up to and everything that we’re doing.”


The time to build partnerships is now, not just when you need them most.

If the community’s first introduction to your organization is when the headline reads that one of your members has fallen off the pedestal of public trust, it’s probably too late.

On the other hand, if you’ve done your job in nurturing your relationship with the community before a negative incident strikes, your citizens may tend to be more forgiving because they have a memory bank full of frequent reminders of the positive impact you’ve made in the community.

Saving lives, protecting property, keeping your residents and businesses safe, and the dedicated service your volunteers provide — are the valuable contributions you make to the bank of community equity every day.

Usually, volunteer fire and emergency services are making substantial deposits and investments, but one day you might need to make a withdrawal, so it’s imperative that you maintain and grow a positive balance at all times.

Clear Spring Chief Huppmann told us how the benefits of building strong partnerships are often tangible:

“It’s pretty clear that we enjoy an outstanding rapport with the community, the residents are very supportive. Not a day goes by when we don’t have somebody stopping in to drop off food or goodies for the troops or just pull us aside when we’re out and thank you and tell us how much we’re appreciated.

Staying engaged and being entrenched in our community goes back to the traditional volunteer fire service model. We want to be able to give back to the community in any way that we can, through food drives, our Santa Run, and the traditional fire prevention programs that the fire service does on a regular basis. The return on those investments is ten-fold.”

Forming alliances with others is essential to the success of your organization. As a vital community service organization, you can’t do it alone. You need those partners.
Establishing and enhancing your relationships helps to build the equity you need to have with your community, so be sure you are staying connected and sharing your story often.

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