Keeping Service in the Fire Service

Firefighters training at FDIC

A generation ago, when my father pulled into a gas station, a white-uniformed attendant hustled to fuel his car, check fluids, wash his windshield, measure the tire pressure, and reliably provide accurate directions and free maps. This facility that provided this everyday customer care had a simple name: service station.

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Today, customer service has all but vanished from many businesses and organizations. The fire service is one of the few dinosaurs left in our culture that can emulate the customer service of a bygone era and maintain a standard for future generations of firefighters. As public servants, we facilitate the laudable traditions of our past and model true service to our customers. As professionals, we solidify community support for bonds, levies, and other legislative measures. To successfully accomplish our goal, we must not lose sight of the past. We can use contemporary tools to focus on what our customers value.

Firefighters Are Altruistic

Firefighting is a form of altruism: Firefighters put others first. An altruistic firefighter risks his life to save another’s. Firefighters typically use this compassionate behavior while operating at a structure fire or other rescue scenario and include these sentiments in their mission statement. Altruism is a highly regarded trait in our culture and is often used as a standard for customer service.

Firefighters can freely deliver altruistic compassion to strangers at fire scenes and to our day-to-day customers. Who are these customers? Dispatchers, taxpayers, transport agencies, grocery clerks, coworkers, other drivers on the road, station administrative personnel, and every challenging frequent flyer in our first-due area.

What are some practical ideas for this purpose-driven humble servanthood? Begin with mental fortitude—daily and deliberately focusing on the mission of putting others first. That means placing written goals prominently in one’s locker, having an accountability partner at work who understands the stresses of this challenge, or carrying a small notebook and pen to jot down important specifics to help you recall small details customers consider important.

Going the Extra Mile

According to Roger Staubach, one of my favorite quarterbacks, “There are no traffic jams along the extra mile.” Begin each shift well-rested. Take pride in your personal appearance. Convey professionalism inwardly and outwardly—be ready to serve.

One of the simplest and most rewarding steps to “wow” customers is to conduct short follow-up calls (by phone or through a brief home visit) within 72 hours of their emergency. Inquire how they are feeling. Ask if there is anything you can do to facilitate their recovery. This is also a good time to practice listening skills.

Another effective and respectful act is to carry an umbrella in the cab of the apparatus. Cover patients while they are on the hospital transport gurney and unable to protect themselves. The umbrella works for rain protection, shade in the sun, and privacy for invasive maneuvers.

When responding to vehicle lockouts, carry spare magnetic key holders to give away after successfully accessing the vehicle. This conveys a commitment to your customer’s future and provides a pocket for tucking in your department’s business card.

Be aware of your surroundings. When you see construction workers flagging on the road, Parks Department employees landscaping, elderly walkers in your neighborhood, coworkers on the treadmill, and homeless individuals on your streets, provide a bottle of water. Nothing needs to be said. This simple action coupled with a caring smile provides a long-lasting brand of good will; the value far exceeds the price of the bottle of water.

Research has confirmed that humans like to hear their name. Ask customers their names (only once), remember them as if they were important to you, and use them as you interact with them on scene.

There are limitless creative ideas for serving customers in this data-driven world, but the one that speaks the loudest and strongest is the rendering of professional, empathetic care, which perhaps was what drove you to this service-oriented career. Living by the Golden Rule will propel your department into an organization that others will use as a standard. The fire station can be a “service center” where people matter and are treated with dignity and respect.

The “Empowerment Lesson”

Empowerment is another customer service tool. As an officer, I convey to my firefighters that they are empowered to make a decision that will solve a customer’s problem. Customers do not want to be transferred to a supervisor or to have to reexplain a simple problem. Finding solutions at the lowest level and planning to exceed your customers’ needs will build a customer-centered value into your shift while embedding ownership at every rank.

Each alarm is an opportunity to proudly display the caliber of service that will never wane in the fire service. As we arrive on scene and are stepping off the apparatus, my crew hears one word from me through their headset: “Showtime.” This is a purposeful and strategic reminder that we are here to provide excellence in action and service beyond expectation.


JED WACHLIN is a lieutenant with the Clackamas (OR) Fire District, where he has served for 30 years. He has an associate degree in fire science and a B.S. degree in fire service administration. Wachlin incorporates customer service principles into the fire and medical classes he teaches. He has volunteered his time with local and national nonprofit agencies, including Medical Teams Northwest, Global Mission Readiness, and Habitat for Humanity.

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