Recently a group email to my local volunteer fire department members included a message forwarded from the township clerk: A property owner wanted the fire department to be aware that her home is vacant and, if there’s a fire at that address, that a search for occupants should not be necessary. It was a thoughtful and much-appreciated gesture from someone who knows other people could be putting their lives on the line if they didn’t have that information. 

Sometimes it feels like everybody in a small town or rural community knows way more about your business than they need to. But the grapevine isn’t always reliable (shocker, right?). When you least expect it, a neighbor may head south for the winter, go into the hospital then rehab or a nursing home, or move, or die. While we’re busy with our own stuff, other dramas unfold around us – whether or not we’re paying attention.

How do you make sure those with a legitimate need-to-know have information that’s accurate and specific enough to be useful without making it too easy for just anyone to find out? Here are some suggestions.

Expectations of discretion. For some, an expectation to protect your privacy is part of their job. However much or little training addresses that is reinforced by the fingerprinting, background checks, and drug testing required for the position. Your rural mail carrier, for example, probably delivers prescription refills to many boxes on their route – not just yours. Discretion is expected from those people. The neighbor kid you ask to bring in your mail while you’re out of town, on the other hand, may not realize that an offhand comment to the wrong person can put your pharmaceutical supply on the radar of those who might wish to steal it. 

Mail. Gone are the days when you could call the Postmaster or ask the rural mail carrier to relay a request to have your mail held. Now you need to make hold requests online, fill out a form yourself at the Post Office, or call an 800 number instead of the local office. More information is available here. While it may be less convenient for you there is more accountability with this process. So make the effort. Besides, it’s no fun to come home from a trip to find the snowplow took out your mailbox and wonder whether your tax forms blew away.

Package deliveries. Everything you read about home security mentions not letting packages accumulate on the porch – a sure signal that occupants are away. Package tracking service notifications, available from most shippers, are great for alerting you about pending and completed deliveries. But it’s easy to forget about scheduled and subscription deliveries and backordered items that finally ship at the least convenient time. Instead of asking a neighbor to move boxes from your porch to a more secure location while you’re away, you can place holds or change delivery options online. Find more information here for UPS, and here and here for FedEx. 

Other indications of absence. In a rural area like mine, many homes fuel their heating systems with liquid propane gas stored on-site in 500-gallon tanks. We find a delivery slip in the door after the route driver fills our tank. For a planned extended absence, contact your propane company to either suspend deliveries or not leave the receipt notice where it’s visible. For an unplanned absence like a hospital stay, you may want to ask someone to stop in every few days to check the door, shovel snow off the steps, cut the grass – whatever might be needed to make it less obvious that no one is home.

Pets. A reclusive older neighbor once had to go stay with a relative who couldn’t take his dog, too. So they left a big bag of food on the porch for the dog. It didn’t take long for a black bear to find that food. Soon, the hungry dog was cruising the neighborhood looking for something to eat. None of us recognized the dog or knew the situation until later. The dog survived, but if we had known why it kept coming around a half dozen people would have been happy to help. 

911. When you’re near the county line in a rural area, chances are a 911 call may be routed in the wrong direction. Even when it goes to the right agency, pinpointing a location for the caller isn’t a sure thing. So expect a 911 operator to ask about the location of the emergency. The more information you provide, the faster help can reach you. Where the nearest cross-street may be miles away, addresses and other landmarks and identifiers like driveway banners are important to know – not only for residents but also for children, visitors, vacation renters, caregivers, and others. They should also know to never hang up on a 911 operator until they tell you to do so – even if dialing was an accident. 

Dispatchers. 911 operators dispatch calls for help to the appropriate agency or agencies. They try to send private information through private channels. For example, a door code or the location of a hidden key might be texted to a fire chief or EMT, if it’s unlikely a deputy can be first on the scene. Some information, though, may be conveyed over open local government channels. Nevertheless, sharing that information sooner rather than later is vital. 

Flammables. In commercial buildings, fire inspections may reveal potential hazards. For example, when we had our whitewater business we would tell the fire inspector where we stored flammable materials and items that could release toxic gasses in a fire – in that case, the buoyancy foam in a large number of life jackets. But it’s also important for first responders to know where you store gas cans, solvents, propane tanks, resins, lumber, and other flammables that are commonly found in concerning quantities on private property.

Guns and ammo. In rural northern Wisconsin, guns and ammunition are present in so many homes you might as well assume they’re there. I remember one fire scene where the homeowner told the 911 dispatcher who told the fire department that a large amount of ammo was stored in the part of the structure where the fire started. Most of it had gone up before we got there. But we’ve heard the pop of exploding ammunition at other fire scenes. Loaded guns are especially dangerous in a house fire. For everyone’s safety, tell the 911 operator the locations of guns and ammo.

Hoarding. Hoarding can threaten the welfare of children, other family members, and pets, and even present a threat to public safety. People with this disorder may not recognize the dangers of their behaviors and may resist the help they see as infringing on their property rights.

Most of us are ill-equipped to intervene effectively in situations like this, and equally uncomfortable with turning a blind eye. I felt I had to tell one friend that, if her house caught fire, she and her pets would probably die in there, and possibly so would any firefighters who tried to make an entry. She took it with grace, but nothing changed. In a situation like that, it may be necessary to alert first responders and possibly the county health department. 

Lift assist. You would be surprised how many times rural volunteer fire departments are called out for a lift assist. Normal staffing for a rural ambulance may be two people. That’s not enough to safely lift someone 250 pounds or heavier. So be sure to tell the 911 operator when extra manpower is needed so they can get additional personnel en route. 

Prayer circles. You might be surprised, too, by how many families of rural volunteer first responders do their part by praying for their loved ones and those they’re helping. Prayer circles certainly aren’t limited to church congregations, or even to people you know. But be careful about what you reveal – even to a prayer circle – on social media. It’s your choice to reveal anything and everything if it affects you and you alone. But revealing details of someone else’s situation can result in hard feelings and hardship, no matter how well-intentioned it was. And discretion doesn’t dilute the power of prayer.

Exercise caution. You probably know who to tell anything you want to spread around. It’s on you not to tell them things you wish to keep private. The same goes for people close to them – no matter how much you might trust the other half of a couple or one member of a friend or family group. Whether it’s from genuine concern, the need to relieve anxiety, for power or social currency, or due to misplaced trust, gossip spreads like a social disease. And often faster than information for which there’s a genuine need to know.

Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin, where she is a member of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department.

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