By Thomas A. Merrill
When somebody talks about customer service, he is usually referring to his experience with the retail industry or, possibly, a dining establishment. But customer service—and good customer service skills—should also be the focus of the professional volunteer fire department.
As you know, our citizens continue to call the fire department for just about anything. When they need help, there is almost nothing they won’t ask for; sometimes, the request is not even close to being what could be considered an emergency. It has been like this for generations. I have learned that immigrants, fresh off the boat and settling in their new, unfamiliar country quickly learned to summon the fire department for help even if nothing was burning. A simple pull on the alarm box guaranteed a quick response by caring and helpful firefighters who would attempt to solve their problem. And it continues today; evidence suggests that the demands for our help and assistance will continue to grow.
Time constraints and the personal lives of our busy volunteers certainly make it difficult for them to respond to every nonemergency request for service. But, admirably, many volunteer departments still continue to pump basements, some respond for a simple lift assist call, and others will assist getting keys out of a locked car. It all depends on the department. Individual fire departments and municipalities will have to develop guidelines and determine to what types of nonemergency calls they will respond. But, no matter the call—emergency or otherwise—all professional volunteer fire departments should deliver competent, friendly, and efficient customer service and should treat every public interaction as an opportunity to display caring and compassionate customer service.
Retired Chief Allan Brunacini from the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department wrote the book on effective customer service in the fire service (literally, in his extremely popular book “Essential of Fire Department Customer Service”). This book should be required reading for all firefighters. Brunacini does a fantastic job explaining the application of common sense customer service concepts to the fire service. His main message is an easy one—be nice to the customer: Mrs. Smith. Yes, even in the fire service we should think of those we provide service to as a customer.
Remember, when we respond we are typically seeing people on what is a bad day for them. It may even be the worst day of their lives. Although we can grow tired and burned out with what we consider to be simply a routine call, the person on the other end is anxiously awaiting our arrival to help put an end to whatever problem he is experiencing. Yes, the call may have interfered with a good ballgame at home or good drill back at the firehouse, but regardless, we have a duty to respond faithfully and diligently.
Extend some compassion to those experiencing a problem even if we really cannot solve the problem. Remember, a warm smile goes a long way at putting people at ease and making them feel a little bit better. A friendly, reassuring tone in your voice can convey compassion and sympathy and let those needing our service understand that we are going to do our best to help them out. Studies have shown that most people may only call 911 once or twice in their entire lives. Strive to leave them with a positive impression. Remember, your mannerisms and attitude directly reflects your department.
Try and be cognizant of your appearance. Yes, we are volunteers and don’t wear uniforms. But, keeping a department jacket or shirt in your personal vehicle can provide for a nice coverup and enhance your professional appearance. If you are working in the yard and receive a routine call, it might be a good idea not to wear those muddy shoes into the customer’s house. If you were working on your car, clean up your hands and throw your department’s sweatshirt over your oil-stained shirt. If you are wearing a T-shirt with a political statement or some type of rendering or statement that could be considered controversial, racist, or sexist, leave it behind or cover it up. Help protect your department’s professional image.
Sometimes, we can leave quite a mess behind at a medical call. If you have extra hands after a call, send some firefighters into the house to help clean up the mess. If furniture was moved around to assist getting the patient out of the house, put it back the way it was. Be careful moving it, too; you don’t want to knock over and possibly break items that are important to the family.
One time, my department responded to a medical call for a man who fell while carrying a mirror out of his house. He was cut up pretty badly, and there was broken glass all over his front porch and driveway. We bandaged him up and put him in the ambulance for transport to the hospital. As our firefighters were preparing to leave the scene, my assistant chief and I looked at the broken glass, the mangled mirror, and the pool of blood outside the house and decided we didn’t want this unfortunate man and his family to come home from the hospital and have to deal with this mess. We quickly found a broom and swept up all the debris and got rid of the blood using our emergency medical services cleanup kit. It was a relatively nice afternoon, and concerned neighbors were out watching the action. By spending an extra 10 minutes on scene, we not only cleaned up a messy scene sparing the family the extra work, we helped enhance our department’s reputation in that neighborhood.
At fire scenes, fire departments should definitely still perform salvage work. This seems like a lost art today, but crews should be assigned to throw salvage tarps over furniture and belongings. Take the time to carefully remove photos from walls, take small items and put them in drawers, and put small furniture on top of larger furniture to maximize salvage effectiveness. The bottom line is: Do it, and do it carefully and with a sense of compassion. There are countless stories of people who have suffered through a devastating fire, and one of their most vivid memories is how the fire department took the time and effort to preserve as many of their possessions as possible. You might not think it means a lot, but chances are it really does.
When standing fast at calls, or even when still working at the call, be cognizant of your mannerisms and behavior. We have every right to be satisfied—even euphoric—because of the great job we did a structure fire. However, we should not talk about what a great fire it was while high-fiving each other in full view of a family who lost everything. At a cardiac arrest call, while others are working hard on the patient, firefighters outside should not be laughing and joking about the recent fire department party they attended. It sounds like common sense, and it is. Show compassion for Mrs. Smith.
Sometimes, concerned, inquisitive neighbors will wander over to see what is going on. I have seen firefighters react with anger and send these people away with some nasty words, no doubt leaving them with a bad impression of the fire department. Now, these folks may have been neighbors and friends for the past 50 years, or they may be mortal enemies; you have no way of knowing. But, a friendly, firm direction to stay out of the house should put them at bay until you can check with the patient or patient’s family to see if it is clear for them to enter the scene. If the neighbors are not wanted, simply explain that, with today’s privacy and confidentiality laws, you cannot discuss what is happening or let them see what is happening. But again, it can be done in a friendly, professional manner.
We have an opportunity to display our skills at every call to which we respond. Treat every response as an opportunity to deliver the professional volunteer message. Good, caring, competent customer service is certainly the trademark of a professional volunteer fire department.
Thomas A. Merrill is a 30-year fire department veteran in the Snyder Fire Department, which is located in Amherst, New York. He served 26 years as a department officer, including 15 years in the chief officer ranks, and recently completed five years as chief of department. He also is a professional fire dispatcher for the town of Amherst fire alarm office. He can be reached at [email protected]
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- The Professional Volunteer Fire Department: History, Heritage, and Pride
- The Professional Volunteer Fire Department: Officer Development
- The Professional Volunteer Fire Department: Recruitment