By Bruce Garner
“Times are tough.”
We hear that cliché all the time. The weak economy is straining budgets everywhere, and the fire service is not immune. We’ve all seen countless stories from all over the country about fire departments being forced to close stations and lay off firefighters. There is no single remedy for these dire cutbacks, but good marketing might help.
There are different ways to look at the topic, but for me, marketing is actually just part of public relations (PR). In the business world, for example, a person will buy “marketed” products from a well-known company, but the company gets well known through PR. In this context, the “company” is your fire department.
Why should you care about marketing? It’s simple: if people don’t know about you, they won’t care about you. Sure, you might survive just fine doing the traditional things like putting out fires and responding to wrecks, but you will do so at your own peril.
Local governments, like their counterparts at the state and federal levels, are struggling to balance their budgets, and the cold, heartless budget people are not afraid to explore all options, including your department’s budget. Your job is to save lives and protect property; their job is to cut corners and balance the budget. Good marketing can help you sell your department and perhaps keep those nasty budget people in check.
So how do you “market” your fire department? The short answer is that you get out and get seen by the public you serve. There’s virtually an infinite number of ways to market your department. You may already be doing some of this and more. The following ideas are for departments that are new to the idea of marketing.
Fire Prevention/Public Education
One of the most obvious ways to increase your visibility is through fire prevention efforts. If you have a fire prevention bureau, it can take the lead in making public safety presentations at schools and other public gatherings. Over time, you’ll be seen by hundreds or even thousands of people over the course of a year. The Chattanooga (TN) Fire Department’s (CFD’s) flagship PR tool from the bureau is our Fire Safety House (photo 1). It is operated by a combination of bureau staff and firefighters from the nearest station. We not only get great PR out of it, we also teach thousands of children how to protect themselves if a fire breaks out in their homes.
(1) Photos by author.
If that’s not an option, your firefighters can still make visits. They can simply talk about fire safety or they can make the presentation more interesting by including a firefighter or two wearing their turnout gear, showing the children that they are not to be feared. You can also include remote-controlled robots like “Freddie the Fire Engine.” You might be able to get local businesses to help you purchase one, or you might be able to purchase one through a fire prevention grant; that’s how we got Sparky (photo 2) and the Fire Safety House.
Establish Rapport with Local Media
The people you serve and who support you read the newspaper and online publications, listen to the radio, and watch television. They may see you in news coverage of fires and other incidents to which you respond, but it doesn’t have to be limited to that. Get to know your local reporters. Make yourself available to serve as a subject matter expert on fire safety issues. Local reporters usually prefer to quote local experts rather than using video footage or quotes from some expert out of Washington, D.C., or elsewhere. An interview here and there will increase the visibility of your entire department.
You can invite the media to special demonstrations such as using fire extinguishers, burning up a live Christmas tree, or showing how to properly handle a cooking fire. You can also invite the media to special training events. For example, we invite the media to cover our fire academy’s live fire training with natural gas (photo 3), and we invite them to see special training exercises with our urban search and rescue team. The possibilities are endless.
Read Across America
Each year, around March 1, public schools across the nation observe “Read Across America” day (photo 4), which celebrates Dr. Seuss’s birthday and promotes reading. In advance of that event, we have firefighters from every station contact the schools in their district offering to read to students. Our firefighters have become very popular with this event, and now we get lots of invitations to participate. We also get media coverage. Firefighters reading Dr. Seuss books to children provide great visuals that are hard to pass up by the media.
Supporting Local Charities and Nonprofits
You can team up with a local charity or nonprofit and participate in fundraising events to support it. If you’re like many fire departments, you have relations with and support the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). We have teamed up with MDA of Chattanooga on many occasions, most notably with its Fill-the-Boot campaign (photo 5). CFD firefighters are seen all over town collecting donations for MDA, and during the annual televised MDA telethon, our chief is asked to appear to talk about our support of MDA. It’s a double win for us: we support a very good charity and we get excellent PR for doing it. We also support other worthwhile charities such as the Susan B. Komen Race for the Cure (photo 6), the Ronald McDonald House, and Big Brothers/Big Sisters.
Supporting Your Own Charity
Although we do support a number of local charities, we also have our own: the Forgotten Child Fund (photo 7). This is a 501(c)(3) charity that is headed up by CFD firefighters, including some who are retired. This popular charity was started back in 1965 and provides Christmas presents to needy families. The CFD is the lead agency, but it is strongly supported by volunteers with many emergency response agencies including fire, EMS, rescue, and police departments from around the region. Several fundraising events are held throughout the year, which are supported by local businesses, churches, the local media, and the general public. For the 2012 Christmas season, the Forgotten Child Fund provided presents to 7,200 children. This charity wraps up each season with a big finale on Christmas Eve with the “Santa Train,” which is not a train but a convoy of fire trucks and many other emergency vehicles that visits 10 of the neediest families, delivering toys to excited children who otherwise would have had a very bleak Christmas. This event provides far more than just PR, but for this discussion, let’s just say that this charity provides tremendous goodwill with the public that lasts year round.
Halloween Open House
We have an annual “Halloween Open House” at all of our fire stations from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. the day Halloween is observed. We’re not comfortable with the liability of “checking” candy brought to us by young trick-or-treaters, so we solicit donations from local candy manufacturers and hand out candy that we know is safe. We also let the trick-or-treaters visit the fire stations, see the trucks, and talk with the firefighters. We always get some media coverage on this.
Smoke Alarm Distribution Events
Twice a year, coinciding with the time we change our clocks in the spring and fall, we team up with the Chattanooga chapter of the American Red Cross and canvas a neighborhood to install free smoke alarms and batteries (photo 8). We pick high-risk neighborhoods, which usually involve low-income areas with a high volume of calls. We also invite the media to go with us. This provides an excellent opportunity for firefighters to meet with residents face-to-face and help them in a very tangible way. It’s also a great way to get the media’s help in promoting the “Change Your Clock, Change Your Battery” concept pushed so well by the fire service.
For Part 2, click HERE
BRUCE GARNER has been the public information director for the Chattanooga (TN) Fire Department, a Class 2 ISO fire department, for the past 14 years. Garner has a BA in English from Lee College (now Lee University) and is a former radio/TV reporter. He also served 10 years as a public information officer with Hamilton County (TN) Emergency Services. Garner also served as chairman of the Hamilton County Local Emergency Planning Committee for six years and is a member of the National Information Officers Association and Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). You can contact Garner at [email protected].