Where’s the Customer Service?

By Mark Greatorex

As I look at today’s fire service and the new generation, I have to ask myself: Does customer service really exist in the fire service anymore? When I entered the fire service some 24 years ago, I, like many of my generation, thought that I was going to help people. Once inside, however, I found that, although on many runs the fire department was a welcome sight and someone really needed us, there were some who really could have cared less that we were there. Those I seem to remember, though, are the ones who wondered why we were there or why we existed.

Today’s new generation of firefighters come into work, check their apparatus, make runs, train, and enjoy the benefits of being a firefighter. However, sometimes a run comes in, and their attitude is: “Oh great, a run.” Didn’t we get into the business to get on the big red truck or the little square box so we could turn on the red lights and run red?

A few such runs were recently made in my department. The first occurred just before Thanksgiving. We were dispatched for difficulty breathing. Our crew arrived and attended to the patient. A paramedic and a basic EMT were aboard the unit. The paramedic decided that the run was of no true concern and had pretty much ruled it as a “panic attack” and allowed the basic to ride the run in. I received a follow-up call from the patient’s spouse a few days later; she was not very happy with his customer service experience. It turns out the patient suffered from a pulmonary embolus. I went back and pulled the run report and found that the signs and symptoms had not been treated: The patient complained of chest pain, and no nitro was administered. The patient had a history of asthma, and no breathing treatment was given. The most disturbing part was that no IV was established.

In the aforementioned scenario, we should have done the detective work: why is the patient having difficulty breathing? What caused it, and am I making a difference? Did I make the patient comfortable? This is all part of customer service. Did we give this customer satisfaction? I recently completed paramedic school and learned that many things I would have downgraded in the past shouldn’t be. I should have paid attention to the details in those cases. In my early years, I was gung ho about making a difference, and this vibrancy has returned to my career since I completed the paramedic program. I suddenly remembered why I am here, and those who could care less about our service were forgotten.

On yet another recent call, we received another poor customer service report. Our crews arrived on the scene and began their assessment. When our personnel entered the residence, the patient’s spouse attempted to warn the crew of the possibility of ice on their front porch. One of the crew members said, “Well, it’s not there now,” instead of acknowledging with a thank you. This set the tone with the patient. The patient had younger children in the residence, and a neighbor had come by to assist with the children. It appeared that our crew was rude to the bystander as well. The bystander asked what hospital we were taking the patient to, and a crew member responded: “I can’t tell you that.” Nowhere in HIPPA is that listed; this privacy rule applies only to healthcare information. This neighbor came by to assist with the children because one parent was ill and the other parent was at work. Maybe the other parent was on the way to tend to the children, and it would have been nice to tell them that they went to XYZ hospital. Our members then placed the patient into the ambulance; the attending paramedic asked to start an IV on the patient, in accordance with accepted practice. The patient was not comfortable with this procedure and declined. Another person from our department was standing at the back door of the unit and said, right in front of the patient: “Have fun with that one.” Talk about making the patient feel uncomfortable!

This resulted in another bad customer service experience. What could have been done differently? How about less sarcasm? Show our customers we really do care. How about leaving our problems or our personal likes or dislikes for our crew members or officers at the station? Our main focus in this business is the people we serve and protect. Our initial actions or words set the tone for the rest of the call. Try showing a little empathy. Adopt the attitude that their problem is your problem. Most of all, think of the old adage: “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” Put yourself in that position, and think about the person you want taking care of you in an emergency.

This leads me back to my original question: Does customer service exist in the fire service anymore? Am I a dinosaur who has been left behind? I don’t think so. Customer service is not something we learn and then put on a shelf. It is a component of continuing education–something we need to keep up with, a skill we must hone. In the long run, satisfied customers could pay dividends both personally and monetarily.

Mark Greatorex is a 24-year veteran of the fire & EMS service. He is the acting fire chief with Hamilton Township Fire Rescue in Warren County, Ohio.

Subjects: Fire-based EMS, customer service

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