Listen First, Communicate Second - Using Science and Sound Advice to Connect with your Community
Published: 8/06/2014
Author: Jeffrey D. Johnson, Executive Director, Western Fire Chiefs Association

Consider the story of two different fire districts that passed significant funding increases with voters, by wide margins, in the face of initial voter skepticism.

In May of 2014 the Missoula Rural Fire District (MRFD), which serves a population of about 38,500, wanted to increase its tax rate for the first time in 22 years in order to retain firefighters originally funded by a SAFER Grant.  The last two levy attempts, both in 2008, had failed, the first by a 52% No vote and the second by an even wider margin, a 64% No vote.  Yet in 2014, when they went before the voters again, 68% of their voters said Yes.

Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue (TVF&R), in contrast, serves a population of over 450,000 and had successfully passed, and then twice renewed, its local option levy (which supplements its permanent tax rate).  Then, in 2014, TVF&R took a deep breath and asked voters to almost double the local option levy amount.  It passed this last May with a 66% Yes vote.

On the surface, MRFD and TVF&R may look like very different fire and rescue operations, serving different communities of different sizes.  Underneath, however, they have something important in common: They have learned to listen carefully to the communities they serve and, and in doing so, have been able to communicate more effectively and build better, more mutually-supportive partnerships.

There are many pieces to the puzzle of how these remarkable results were achieved, but a cornerstone for both was the decision to work with the strategic research, training, and planning firm Campbell DeLong Resources, Inc. (CDRI) who help them survey their communities and plan their communications approaches.

Starting the research process

In each case, the process began with meetings that helped fire service leadership understand the research process and the researchers understand the organizational culture and specific needs the fire service is trying to fulfill.  CDRI principals, John Campbell or Martha DeLong typically spend time with leadership asking questions about how the community will benefit if the desired funding measure is approved and gathering information about the purpose and context of the tax request that would be relevant for the public to know.

The complexity of the research often depends on how far along leadership is in deciding what it wants to ask of the voters.  It can be relatively simple when an organization has a specific dollar amount it wishes to test and more complicated when there is a need to test multiple options and approaches.  Generally, if there remains considerable question as to what options should be included (e.g. three or more approaches remain on the table), qualitative research, such as focus groups or community leader interviews, may be recommended to help clarify decision making before conducting an opinion poll with voters.

Community benefits

One of the more challenging aspects of the process happens as leaders are asked to translate statements of organizational need into defined community benefits.  Example: Internally you may use the shorthand of speaking about how a station “needs” more firefighters, but of course it isn’t the station that has the need, it’s the community.  By using our internal jargon when explaining ourselves to the public we often skip over the answer to the public’s most important question: That is, what is the public safety benefit to the community of adding those firefighters?

Campbell notes that, because every community and every fire service is unique, “one size fits all” approaches don’t work well.  “Our clients get the best results if they plan to engage and bring healthy skepticism and critical thinking to the table.  We work best when we can blend your expertise with ours.  You bring the knowledge of your culture and issues and we’ll bring the science and experience to get you better information.”

Research findings

After a series of survey draft iterations to make sure the survey tool(s) are tailored to the exact need, CDRI conducts the research, processes the results, and provides an in-depth analysis of the findings, including crucial guidance on what the findings mean and how different segments of the community react to different benefits and facts about the funding request.  It can be quite educational for those who haven’t experienced it before (see examples under Additional Resources).  Generally, the findings are presented to the same internal team that worked on the development of the research and then often to a wider audience — for example, your elected leadership — as appropriate.  If you have in-house communications personnel, CDRI typically works with them to advise on strategy.  If not, they can develop materials (such as brochures, media kits, and other elements) and coach executive staff, labor leadership, and others on a communication strategy.

Selecting the right moment

It should be noted that sometimes the advice from the researchers is to slow down and build support before going to the ballot.  As DeLong notes, “We have had clients whose survey results indicate that passage in the near future is very unlikely.  In those situations we may advise that they wait a year, if they can, and build more support before going out.  Clients who follow that advice have consistently found success after taking the extra time to work with the community.  So far, in all the years we have been doing this, every client who has gone to the voters anyway after we advise them that the timing isn’t right have not succeeded at the ballot box.”  On the other hand, DeLong notes, “While many things can happen between the research date and the election, so far we are batting 100%.  If we tell a client they are likely to win at the ballot box, they have, always.”

A story of two toss-ups

The most challenging, and nerve-wracking, for both clients and CDRI, are the toss-ups, situations where the research indicates a virtual dead heat.  “In most situations, you can win the toss-ups by taking the research results to heart and really running with it,” DeLong notes, but there are no guarantees since a lot can happen on the way to a vote.

However, that is exactly the situation both TVF&R and MRFD found themselves in early this year.  CDRI’s research showed sobering news for both — TVF&R’s typically-comfortable margin of victory projections had shrunk to virtually 50/50 results in the face of asking for a substantial increase in their local option levy and MRFD was looking at a virtual dead heat as well.  “In both instances, they took every bit of the research results to heart and made sure to focus on the issues and benefits that the voters most needed to hear about in order to make their decision,” DeLong explains, “and in both cases they did an excellent job.  They aggressively took their case to the voters, trusting that once voters understood the benefits to the community, they would cast a Yes vote.  We held our breath right up until Election Day, but both moved from dead heats to wide margins of victory.  We couldn’t be more excited for them and, of course, for the communities they serve.” 

Jeffrey D. Johnson, Chief (Retired)

CEO, Western Fire Chiefs Association


Additional Resources

Communicating with your undecided public

 Every community has a segment of residents who are strong supporters of fire and emergency medical services and a segment who seem philosophically opposed to any request for additional tax support.  In most elections, it is the people in between, the undecided voters, who determine the outcome.

CDRI has conducted research into community attitudes toward fire and rescue services in many communities and found some commonalities among undecided voters.  Here are just a few of them:

  • It is about the community’s need, not the fire agency’s.  From the public’s perspective, neither your organization nor your stations need more firefighter/medics, but the community may need them to maintain fast response to emergency situations.  Hear the difference?  If you don’t, read it again.
  • Resources and calls are not the same thing as firefighters and emergenciesRepeated surveys in many different communities consistently validate that our internal jargon doesn’t resonate with the community.  Think you need more funding so the “right resources can respond efficiently to calls for service?”  Sure, some in your community will agree.  Maybe even 49% will.  But more will agree if you explain that the funding will “ensure enough firefighter/medics will provide quick response to fires, heart attacks, and other emergencies.”  Hear the difference?  The public will.
  • The community thinks it pays firefighter/medics to act in the face of emergencies.  Does your web site feature firefighters posing in front of engines, shopping for groceries, or watching other firefighters in action?  Or does it show action shots of fire attack or medical rescue where everyone is in motion?  Do you want taxpayers to think of you as people who fight fires and save lives or people with the time to pose, stand around, or grocery shop?  It may not be an entirely fair question, but if a picture is worth 1,000 words, spend those words on the reason your organization exists.
  • Benefits work better than threats.  Lead off any communications with a community benefit of passage (e.g., “faster response”) not a threat about what will happen if it fails (e.g. “firefighters will be laid off”).  The over use of threats cause resentment, and therefore resistance, so use them in moderation.  Though there are exceptions, it is generally better to emphasize that “Passage of the levy will help us maintain fast response to fire and medical emergencies” than to emphasize that “Failure will mean laying off firefighters.”
  • Specificity works better than generalities, up to a point.  To the degree that a community benefit can be stated in a measurable, results-specific manner, voters will be feel more assured that the organization is making a real commitment to change.  Overly broad or generic-sounding statements raise suspicion and may not have the desire result.  Remember, however, that the specificity should be about an actual community benefit (such as average response time to a heart attack) and not managerial details, such as firefighter training time.


Finding good research help

  •  Work with an experienced team that specializes in public safety and community relations.  Generic research ability is not enough.
  •  Make sure the data will be collected using a true, scientifically-randomized sample of the relevant population (e.g. frequent voters).  Online polls (for election polling), landline-only surveys, or using a specialized list, such as those who attend community meetings or have called for service, do not provide reliable information about what voters are thinking.
  •  Make sure the data will be collected by professional researchers who are well oriented to the scientific process.  Do not rely on college students working on a project, community volunteers, or companies that discount research prices by using of robo-calling systems that employ a recorded voice to asks respondents to press a number on their telephone keypad to indicate an answer.
  •  Budget for it.  Expect to spend $15,000 to $20,000 for a relatively straightforward survey, more for one that tests a variety of different options or has multiple components.  If you can’t afford a well-executed survey, don’t bother with one that cuts corners.  Instead, spend less by asking experience researchers in the subject matter to provide some hours of general consulting and training time, which will be better help than a poorly done survey.

If you need to write an RFP.  Some good advice on writing an RFP, that may be more likely to get you the responses you need, can be found on CDRI’s web site at:


How voters decide

CDRI has built a three-sided model that describes how voters make the decision to vote for or against a money request.  In general, every voter balances three factors when making a decision:

1.  Perceived community benefit of intended purpose.  If the voters don’t think the stated purpose of the funding will provide a needed community benefit, they will vote down the request even if the other two factors are in place.  This is why it is important to clearly articulate community benefits that are at least as valuable as the cost.

2.  Trust in the organization to use tax dollars wisely.  Guard your organization’s reputation for efficiency and wise use of tax dollars like the gold that it is.  All government agencies are vulnerable to suspicion, fairly or not, about wasteful spending and bloated budgets.  It is very difficult to regain footing after media reports associating your organization with wasteful spending or poor management decisions.  To retain the community’s goodwill, act in good faith, use tax dollars wisely, and regularly communicate to make sure the public knows that the efficient use of tax dollars is at the core of management’s approach.

3.  Degree of personal economic optimism.  This is the factor that organizations have the least amount of control over.  When the economy sank in 2008, so did the funding hopes of many agencies for a time.  Voters are more likely to approve a tax increase when they feel that the economy is strong and their income prospects are reliable and secure.

For more information…

Missoula Rural Fire District:  MRFD Board of Trustees Chair Dan Corti, Fire Chief Bill Colwell, and IAFF Local 2457 President Ron Lubke can all be reached at: 406-549-6172,

Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue: Cassandra Ulven, Public Affairs Chief, 503-259-1513,

Campbell DeLong Resources, Inc.: John Campbell, President and Martha DeLong, CEO, 503-221-2005.



Sign up to subscribe to custom state Daily Dispatch emails for free

click to subscribe