Improving Customer Service


FIRST ESPOUSED BY CHIEF (Ret.) Alan Brunacini of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department, customer service was introduced as a means to take care of Mrs. Smith, the legendary face of the public we serve. Many have taken his ideas and added some of their own. These days, we are not faced with how to do customer service but with the need to choose from among the myriad ideas those we want to include in our fire department practices. Time and space do not allow us to hit on every customer service idea out there, but perhaps some of the following ideas from the Gurnee (IL) Fire Department and Livonia (MI) Fire & Rescue may spark your interest.


Chief Kevin Cochran from Shreveport, Louisiana, once said, “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.” Walk out to the front of your station, and then look back. As an average citizen, would that sight impress you?

Nothing looks more impressive than a fire station with its doors wide open, massive fire engines ready to respond, and the American flag flying proudly in front. But, you need to keep your station looking good by making sure it is free of trash and clutter and that it is landscaped properly. This sends a strong message to your citizens. It also helps firefighters with their pride factor. You can see the pride in your people when citizens comment on how clean the trucks look.

In Lewisville, Texas, Chief Rick Lasky added park benches in front of the fire stations and encourages his firefighters to use them. This connection to the community helps everyone feel more a part of the neighborhood.


Fire stations can serve as an official drop-off center for used eyeglasses, old cell phones, clothing, or canned food drives and a variety of other items. This is where a nice-looking fire station with friendly firefighters goes a long way in making the encounter pleasant for both parties.


Growing up, all of us can remember people who would wave at everyone. While driving, their arm was in the air more than it was on the wheel. They would smile at everyone, and everyone would smile back. It was a sincere gesture of friendship.

Why don’t we wave at people anymore? Not the one-finger wave, but the “how are you doing?” wave or the “glad to see you” wave.

Imagine a three-year-old riding to the grocery store in the family minivan. All of a sudden, he sees a 21-ton, red, powerful, loud fire truck with equipment hanging from everywhere, and three firefighters whom he considers heroes sitting 10 feet high. Think of how he would feel if his “heroes” waved to him. You could do the cool two-finger wave, the parade wave, or the short half wave. Try it sometime. The kid turns to mom and dad and excitedly tells them about his heroes waving to them. The next day at preschool, he will repeat the story.

You might need Mom and Dad’s help in the future, and maybe the only experience they will have had with the fire department was the day the firefighters made their child feel special.


People like to get cards. After we make rescue calls involving residents, we send the person a get-well card signed by the paramedics and the chief. It takes only a couple of seconds.

When we revisit patients with recurring illness, we find the cards proudly displayed on the refrigerator like a grade school report card.

A local agency donates teddy bears to the fire department (photo 1). We use the toys to alleviate fear in small children during an emergency. If a small child is involved in an accident or has a medical problem, we give the child a teddy bear. This calms the child and makes it easier to treat the child.

(1) Photo by Tom Kiurski.

Once, we had the misfortune of experiencing a house fire in which two lives were lost; a mother and a small girl. The firefighters made a quick rescue and tried everything possible to resuscitate them, but it was too late. At the hospital, one of our firefighters took one of the bears and placed it underneath the little girl’s arm. It helped him deal with the loss. There wasn’t a dry eye in the emergency room.

Ask around. There are agencies in your area that would be willing to help with this project.


Keep your officials informed of the department’s doings. This includes providing them with photos of training, public education activities, and interesting calls. We carry a digital camera in our command and engine companies. If there is an interesting accident or fire, we take pictures and place them in our monthly report to the village and district trustees. They appreciate seeing how the money is being used and why it is important.

We also put in these reports statistics about the department’s call volume; we emphasize that it is increasing. When letters of appreciation come in to the department, we make copies and place them in the monthly reports as well.

When the ambulance takes a loved one away, the out-of-town family members are searching for directions. We hand them maps displaying landmarks and the locations of the local hospitals. These maps are cheap and easy to make, and families appreciate the help.


The Gurnee Fire Department, in conjunction with the Gurnee Breakfast Exchange Club, placed a box at the fire station for discarded flags (photo 2). The box, obtained from the post office, was painted by a local accident repair shop. The box proudly sits in front of the fire station, where citizens drop off their used and torn flags. The fire department takes the discarded flags to the local American Legion Post for proper disposal. This customer service is a very inexpensive but effective endeavor.

(2) Photo by Barry Henby.



These days, everyone has a Web page. There are some cool things on Gurnee’s, such as an interactive tour of the apparatus. You can open fire apparatus doors easily with the click of a mouse and find the tool selection inside. Another fun idea online for kids is fire safety coloring books. Check out the Web sites of other agencies to get more ideas.


A local man whose son is suffering from muscular dystrophy organized a fund-raising golf outing. When he asked for a donation from the Livonia Fire Department, we decided we would auction off a ride for two on one of our fire engines. The winner wanted her grandchildren to go for a ride. We customized the ride so that both grandchildren could go, along with the grandparents, by giving one grandparent and grandchild a 15-minute ride, then picking up the other grandparent and grandchild.

During the auction, we distributed some handout goodies such as plastic fire helmets, stick-on badges, and coloring books. We took plenty of photos. We helped a very worthy cause and gave some kids a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Since our first charity ride, we have been approached numerous times. It may be necessary to establish a selection committee to help you decide which charities to support.


One of our schools in Livonia has an active PTA member who wants more for the children at her school. She has asked teachers to refer the names of students who may need a “big brother/big sister” figure in their lives, giving encouragement and praise along the way. The need may be related to divorce, adoption, or recent relocation in the area. She contacted the families to see if it would be all right to try to get them an “Encouraging Words” partner. If they agreed, they moved on to the next step.

Twenty of our firefighters each “adopted” a child. We were provided with a generic description of the child, including grade level and interests. Once we chose a child, a supervised lunch date was arranged at the school so we could meet our new friend.

Throughout the school year, we get weekly progress reports from the child’s teacher about some of the child’s good and bad moments. The child also writes us a weekly note. We write back, taking into account the child’s letter and the teacher’s comments. We usually meet with our child a few times during the year, such as at the school Christmas party and Spring Festival.

We had a resident come in a few years ago asking if we could help her with a joke. She wanted to have us make a fake “open burning” permit that she could present to a family member as she was lighting the candles on his birthday cake. It took only a few moments for us to design and produce a nice-looking permit, with a “Happy Birthday” wish signed by the chief.


The Henrico County (VA) Fire Department established the WHALE program many years ago. WHALE is an acronym for “We Have A Little Emergency.” This is a car seat identification program and includes pertinent emergency information and contacts in case of serious injury to a child when emergency workers need information quickly.

The program consists of a sticker that is filled out and affixed to the back or bottom of a child’s safety seat. There is room for the parents’ names, phone numbers, other contact people in case the parents are not available, and pertinent medical information. Although this sticker is applied to the back or bottom of the child’s seat and is out of the view of most people, smaller stickers are attached to both sides of the seat to serve as visual indicators alerting firefighters that the child is a WHALE program participant.


These ideas can be tailored to any fire department in the country. Use the material you learned here, talk with your coworkers, or ask around at your neighboring fire departments, and you will come up with some additional fun ideas. You don’t have to do them all. Pick one or two. Get started. The benefits will be well worth your effort.

BARRY HENBY is a battalion chief with the Gurnee (IL) Fire Department, where he has served for 27 years. He has a bachelor’s degree from Western Illinois University, two associate’s degrees, and several state of Illinois certifications. He is an instructor for the Illinois Fire Service Institute and a director of the Illinois Society of Fire Service Instructors.

TOM KIURSKI is a lieutenant, a paramedic, and the director of fire safety education for Livonia (MI) Fire & Rescue. His book Creating a Fire-Safe Community: A Guide for Fire Safety Educators (Fire Engineering, 1999) is a guide for bringing the safety message to all segments of the community efficiently and economically.

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