Create a Brand for Your Department

By Jacob McAfee

The fire service and its personnel are good at a lot of things, and yet we still seem to be struggling to justify our existence as politicians find more and more creative ways to ask why we’re worth the tax money.

Too often, we judge our success by our performance during fireground operations. Although it’s important that we meet our service delivery benchmarks, we need to think outside of the box and find ways to reach out to the community so we are more visible. As departments increase their levels of community outreach, programs, and public education, we are continually thinking of new innovative ways to provide services to the community.

There are many programs out there. Some common programs include community outreach meetings, CPR/first-aid training, automated external defibrillator management, helping with disaster cleanup, child seat training, sharp collection, installing smoke detectors, and many more.

With all of these great programs being delivered, what seems to be missing? I recently talked with a group of chief officers at the National Emergency Training Center, and we discussed new ways that departments are providing services to their communities. One common thread kept surfacing: even with all of the new service delivery that these departments were providing, it seemed as if the majority of the community had not been exposed to their programs or their personnel on a consistent basis. One fire department there said that it attended a community outreach group with other public safety representatives/organizations. That group’s goal was to engage the citizens on how each organization has been doing and to see if there were any other ideas or needs that the community could suggest to help improve the department’s service delivery. The meeting lasted one hour, and not one person in the community commented or offered improvements to any fire department programs. This wasn’t because they didn’t offer any or their programs were perfect; they just weren’t present in the community enough outside of emergency incidents.

When a successful business has a great product or provides a great service, it doesn’t just keep it to itself; it advertises its success through public relations and advertising. How can the fire service be better at advertising our brand? We collect a mountain of data on the community and the service we provide, but we don’t use it unless someone wants us to justify our existence. Why not get ahead of the game? Use the data we track and our public education and community outreach programs to tell the public what we are doing for them. I have noticed that most citizens just don’t know what we do outside of us putting out a fire or performing a rescue that makes it into the morning paper. With all of the media out there today, the fire service has to do better at advertising its brand and what it is doing for the community.

One concept that really seems to work well is the PIER (public information, public education, and public relations) Concept. Public information is a process in which a fire department will share information on the services it provides and how it is provided to the public, letting the public know how you’re providing services to them.

Public education represents the fire department’s efforts the change the safety culture of the community they serve. This is where we really use the data of our community and put it to good use to prevent some of the most common, unsafe behaviors by changing people’s personal attitudes on safety and wellness.

Public relations is where we build our brand! It is work, and it takes an active effort to be successful. Establishing an effective public relations program in your community is what will develop a positive image of your department, your members, and the services you provide. Some ideas to consider might include television advertisements that run at certain intervals and are updated with important information to the community such as property value saved, rescues made, inspections and code enforcement that contributed to the safety of the community, plans, reviews to ensure buildings are designed with the public’s safety in mind, public education programs or campaigns currently running, and so on. It includes all of the services each division within your department provides.

How many people know everything that the fire department does? Not many. If you haven’t already, create social media pages that distribute information about your department. Distribute focused questionnaires and surveys to gather data on your community and to give the public an opportunity to say if they are satisfied and, if not, why. Other common ideas that were mentioned include smoke detector checks and instillation, carbon monoxide education and alarm instillation, CPR/AED training, training of community emergency response teams, host community events, and many more.

Today, firefighters are fire investigators, building code inspectors, public educators, fire protection engineers, health and safety officers, hazardous materials experts, role models; in other words, so much more than just firefighters. The point is get your brand out there and continually remind the public that you’re there and you’re working for them every day.

Photo found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of George Armstrong.


Jacob McAfee is a 14-year veteran in the fire & emergency services profession, serving in a variety of capacities across the military and Department of Defense. He is the assistant chief of fire prevention and operations at USAF Plant 42 Fire Department in Palmdale, California. McAfee’s career began with the United States Marine Corps as an Aircraft Rescue Firefighter stationed at Marine Corps Air Station (Yuma, Arizona) and, after multiple deployments and two duty stations, he was honorably discharged from active duty in October 2007. He’s had the privilege to lead and mentor personnel in Iraq as a captain and division chief with outstanding results. Since then, he has worked in a number of capacities serving as an assistant chief of operations, fire marshal, fire prevention chief, training chief, and health and fitness coordinator as a civilian with the Department of Defense. 

McAfee has earned Master’s Degrees in Occupational Safety and Health and Emergency Management from Columbia Southern University. He is currently enrolled in the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and is an instructor for the California Office of Emergency services—hazardous materials section, the California State Fire Marshal, and the American Heart Association. McAfee also instructs hazardous materials, urban search and rescue, and incident command courses throughout California. He is IFSAC/Pro Board certified as a chief officer, Master instructor, hazmat technician, hazmat incident commander, hazmat officer, EMT, technical rescue technician, aircraft rescue firefighter, and US&R specialist.

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