The fire service, like other professions, has a tendency to follow trends. We sometimes do things because they are the “thing to do” at a particular given time. Some departments become trendsetters when they develop plans and solutions to certain fire service problems and truly effect change for the better. In many cases, a department may jump to implement someone else’s solution in the department and then wonder why it did not work if the solution failed.
Each department has unique problems and factors that require some creative thinking to resolve. Even though someone else’s solution may provide some commonality and benefit, we must realize that it may not be a “plug-and-play solution” for our individual department.
Many trends have taken hold in the past two decades. It is important to learn from the way our fire service handled these trends and implemented changes, or we may recreate the same problems the fire service has already experienced. Take, for example, the change from a fire service to a fire and EMS service. It is hard to find a true firefighter anywhere who does not agree that firefighting skills suffered as a result. Our firefighting skills did not have to suffer to provide good EMS, but we let them suffer by depleting our resources and emphasizing medical training while ignoring other obligations. Now, we have realized that we must obtain additional resources and return to training aggressively in the basics of firefighting because, despite a decrease in fires, the same number of firefighters are still being injured and killed.
A more recent trend has been the effort to market fire departments. The word marketing means different things to different departments. Some departments have strategic marketing plans while others still consider fire safety education as the sole marketing outlet. However we choose to market our departments, we must realize the importance of marketing and the process needed to be successful. We have found that an effective marketing plan should have three components: internal marketing, external marketing, and political action.
We must ensure that we first sell ourselves on our philosophy, goals, issues, and services (product). To be convincing, we have to know our jobs. We have to know everything about our jobs so that we are truly the subject matter experts. We must nurture and use that passion that lured us to the fire service in the first place. Too often, our passion is lost because departments demoralize us as members. We then pass that demoralization along to our customers in the form of complacency or by doing just the minimum required on our job.
Have you ever asked the waiter in a nice restaurant, “How is the soup?” and he replied, “I’ve never had it, but they say it’s good” or “I don’t know; I don’t eat soup”? Did you order the soup? Of course not. If the guy selling it won’t eat it, why should you? A good restaurant will have its employees sample the food and educate them on the ingredients and the method of preparation. The waiter, in turn, would pass this information to the customers in a positive light so that even if he does not personally like the soup, by the time he gets through telling you about it, your perception will be, “The soup must be good; I’ll try it.”
To begin a successful marketing campaign, you must be able to affirmatively answer the following questions:
- Do all your firefighters know their jobs?
- Are managers first marketing ideas, creativity, policy, and change to the employees?
- Do firefighters understand the issues and needs so they can become part of the effort (empowered) and actually contribute to the organization’s success?
- Do the firefighters believe in the issue or department they are being asked to market, or are they just being told to do so?
- Are the firefighters’ basic needs being provided? Psychologists tell us that everyone has four basic needs:
- to feel comfortable,
- to be understood,
- to feel welcome, and
- to feel important.
In other words, the firefighters must be empowered.
Is the organizational culture creating a natural (daily routine) marketing environment?
Let’s examine how marketing can affect a common fire service trend of giving away and installing smoke detectors. Everyone would agree that giving away free smoke detectors is a great program. After all, who knows better than firefighters that smoke detectors save lives? Is this project successful in your department? How do you measure that success? If you measure it by how many smoke detectors you gave away, that is not accurately portraying any dimensional results. If your firefighters are just handing out smoke detectors-and not marketing smoke detectors-the impact on the community will last only as long as the batteries hold a charge.
A department should first invest a few weeks in marketing this smoke detector program to its own firefighters. The approach would be to make them aware of the program’s desired results, provide guidelines on how to accomplish the task, and review the benefits of smoke detectors. In addition, the firefighters should be taught everything there is to know about the smoke detector: how it works, where it should be installed, when to change the battery, and what to do when the alarm sounds.
Two things will immediately occur. First, firefighters will ensure that the smoke detectors in their own homes are in working order. Second, they will be equipped with the knowledge and tools to accurately carry out the department’s project. Just as we realize the need to return to the basics of firefighter training, we must also be aware that we must return to the basics of communications. Good internal communications equal successful internal marketing, which results in the desired outcome.
Once the initial program has taken hold, the departmental goal should be to make the concept a part of the fire department’s culture. When this occurs, you don’t have a “smoke detector program” because it is part of the firefighter’s everyday routine. Smoke detectors are kept on the apparatus along with the necessary tools to install them. If a company is called to a location for an emergency, and the emergency is handled or determined to be a false alarm, the tools would be in place to turn this response into an opportunity. If your firefighters are already out and they notice that the customer does not have a smoke detector, why not have them prepared to offer one and install it right then if the circumstances are right? Don’t you feel you have received better service at a restaurant when your glass is filled before you have to ask? Don’t you leave a bigger tip if you receive good service? Want to really impress your customers? Start a database covering the smoke detectors you have installed so that you will be able to show up six months later with a battery and a reminder to test the battery and replace it, if necessary.
Don’t limit this strategy to community service projects. Use it for implementing policy changes, training, and other internal projects. Internal communications have always been a big problem for the fire service (three shifts-three different fire departments). We must work hard to address these problems before we can truly be successful at marketing our own departments and issues.
Employees have the greatest impact on the department’s image because they are out there dealing with the customers every day, 24 hours a day. We can’t successfully market from headquarters with colorful public service announcements and eloquently spoken public information officers. It takes total involvement and empowerment to realize success. Isn’t it ironic that a department will have one public information officer to communicate with thousands of citizens, usually with great success, and yet have hundreds of internal information officers in some departments who do not know anything about what is going on? These internal information officers are sometimes referred to as “lieutenant,” “captain,” and “chief.”
The fire service must master the art of internal and external marketing-and, yes, lobbying, which is a form of marketing that is just as important in gaining results as anything else we do. How many training classes have you had in marketing or lobbying? You might want to consider it; you may find that you will become a valuable resource for your department.
Avoid These Common Mistakes
Following are some of the mistakes that can interfere with the successful marketing of your department:
- not listening to the front-line firefighters, who deal directly with the customers;
- not communicating ideas and intentions;
- not making the firefighters feel comfortable, understood, welcome, and important;
- creating an atmosphere in which everybody just does the minimum; and
- stifling your most creative individuals.
Many departments have adopted the slogan “community-based fire department,” the latest trend in marketing. This concept is successfully used in many departments across the country and works well to gain citizen trust and respect. The fact is that this concept is nothing new; the fire service has been community-based since its inception. However, since the police officers have now successfully marketed “community policing” and gained substantial funding along with it, we are now using the slogan. This new and improved community-based fire department concept has been expanded to place the departments into more nontraditional fire service community activities. As with all new programs, there are pros and cons. We must always strive to find new ways to market ourselves, but we have to stay focused on the fact that the best community service we can provide is to adequately train and equip our firefighters and staff our departments with highly motivated and empowered firefighters. As a result, we provide the best service possible in the most safe and effective way. We must ensure that our community involvement and marketing energy enhance our operations and not deplete the valuable resources needed to accomplish our primary mission. In other words, fire department community service must be a part of the firefighters’ culture, not just a program with a catchy slogan.
Are your community service projects having a positive impact on your organization? Do a little self-assessment.
- Do your firefighters understand why they are involved in community service, and are they doing so willingly, or are they just being ordered to do it?
- Are your community service activities depleting your resources or bringing you additional resources?
- Are your firefighters constantly involved in identifying new ways of providing customer service, or does headquarters direct every move?
- Are you marketing your organization (people) and your issues separately?
- Are you staying focused on your mission, or are you trying to do more community activity because it is the trend?
(How does firefighters’ teaching senior citizens the proper technique for pruning petunias fit into your mission, or is it just something to do so you can say you are involved in the community?)
There is a difference in marketing your fire department’s image and issues. You can tell everyone how great you are and what you can do, but that will not necessarily turn out hundreds of concerned citizens when you need support. Incorrect or deceptive marketing can even adversely affect your lobbying efforts if you don’t treat them separately. For example, you cannot successfully market the fact that you have an excellent department that can meet all the community’s challenges when you really need to replace your 25-year-old fleet of apparatus. This is where it becomes tricky. You must avoid sending out mixed messages. The solution is to market the people in your department and not the total operation. Let everyone know what dedicated and talented firefighters (customer servants) the community has. You can do this through providing great customer service. At the same time, lobby and market your issue that the great firefighters need the best tools and equipment available so the department can reach its potential and provide the quality service the citizens deserve.
Many fire departments make the mistake of marketing the department as a whole despite the fact that they have critical issues and needs. This is done primarily because individuals in the organization are insecure about letting inadequacies out of the bag for fear that doing so will make them look bad. In fact, the most successful individuals are those who lay it out on the table and deal with it. As the saying goes, we are only as strong as our weakest link, so why not identify and fortify this weakness?
External marketing is primarily great customer service and ideally should occur not as a project but as part of the organizational culture. The fire service is fortunate in that it can assemble dozens of individuals at someone’s home or business facility and completely flood everything in the structure, break all the windows, cut a four-foot by four-foot hole in the roof-all just to extinguish a room-and-contents fire. And, even when we leave a structure in that state of destruction, the customers can’t thank us enough for all we did to save their property.
However, that does not justify our continuing in this tradition. Sooner or later, the customers are going to figure it out. After all, they don’t let the exterminator provide that kind of service. Can you imagine the calls that would be made to “Termite Busters” corporate headquarters if the exterminator came in and did what we do?
Aside from good tactics, we must constantly look for ways to care for our customers. We already get a great review for average customer service (most departments do provide average customer service through fast response times, good technical skills, and the ability to control emergency incidents). But, if we want to really market ourselves, we have to do the extra things the customers don’t expect us to do. And when we do, they will be “super dooper” thankful and remember us for a long time.
In his book Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service, Phoenix Fire Department Chief Alan Brunacini describes this effort as “WOW!” customer service. World-renowned chef Paul Prudhomme, author and owner of New Orleans K-Paul’s restaurant, offers what he refers to as “lagniappe” in his famous Louisiana cooking. Lagniappe is a popular term in South Louisiana that means “a little something extra.” Both these individuals and their respective organizations are successful in providing more than is expected to the customer.
Avoid These Common Mistakes
The following can interfere with external marketing:
- carrying out all community/customer service calls by order of headquarters,
- denying firefighters the authority to do the extra super dooper stuff they would like to do but are afraid management won’t let them do (empowerment),
- not being honest with the customers,
- not marketing your workforce and your issues separately if need be, and
- not making marketing/community/customer service a part of the normal method of operation (instead of a special project).
Once internal and external marketing have been accomplished and a strong foundation is in place, it is time to finish the total package. Lobbying, the final step in the marketing process, can be an effective tool in any fire department’s arsenal. If you have built that strong foundation with your firefighters, you may be surprised at how well they will contribute to your lobbying success. Lobbying is synonymous with marketing: We market to our customers and ourselves and lobby to our elected officials, who control our destiny. Political action is an important part of successful lobbying. Many firefighters cringe at the thought of becoming involved in the political process and consider politics an unmentionable word. The reason for this is that we don’t fully understand politics, yet it completely controls our occupation. In fact, the lack of lobbying and political action efforts by individual departments is the reason many of them are in their present condition. It can certainly be concluded that the lack of coordinated political action is the “silent killer” of the fire service.
Lobbying is the art of convincing the decision makers to vote your way. Since almost every department is controlled by elected officials, shouldn’t we have a powerful lobbying program in place at the local and state levels and not just rely on our fire service organizations in Washington? The fact is the fire service has to stop whining about the police getting all the money and do something about it. The action to take is to do a better job at political action than the police are doing.
Successful lobbying depends on a strong labor/management relationship that jointly markets the department and specific issues. Each must share power in successfully accomplishing what is best for the firefighters and the citizens. The labor organization can be the fire department’s most powerful force in accomplishing goals. In fact, it is the only source of legal political action funds for the fire service.
To be successful lobbyists, we have to get by the control and ego factors. All parties involved must realize that to get power you have to be willing to give up power. Firefighters should not expect politically appointed fire chiefs to publicly wave the banner on every issue. But the firefighters should be able to expect good quality information from the fire chief. Also, firefighters should expect that the fire chief will not work against them if their efforts are in the best interests of the firefighters and the citizens. Again, this takes maturity and good internal communications between the individuals. Each party must realize that nothing can be gained from adversarial relationships and must coordinate its lobbying and marketing efforts.
Too often, we see firefighters or fire chiefs fighting a battle with nothing to be gained except the chance to say, “See, I told you so; I was right.” Meanwhile, the politicians are grinning as they approve another $2 million for a new park while the firefighters are still responding in open-cab apparatus.
Avoid These Common Mistakes
The following can interfere with political action efforts:
- ignoring politicians (they will ignore you),
- looking for the credit (the object is to achieve the desired outcome),
- failing to understand that political action is about relationships (you can’t just show up when you have a problem),
- failing to build a relationship with officials in office and to seek out potential candidates and build relationships with them early,
- failing to have a contingency plan in case your candidate loses-make amends immediately, and
- maintaining adversarial labor/management relationships.
The days of our fire departments’ getting budget funds because we are such great community heroes have been gone for quite some time. If we are not out there marketing our issues, we will have to settle for what we are given-not what we need. Competition is fierce. The departments that aggressively market and lobby will come out on top.
J. DAVID RHODES, a 15-year veteran of the fire service and lieutenant in a large urban fire department in Georgia, is president of the Atlanta Professional Fire Fighters Association. He is a lead instructor in confined space rescue and firefighter rescue and survival with ESE Training Associates in Dalton, Georgia. Previously, he was a member of the City of Conyers and Rockdale County (GA) Fire Departments, where he served as a firefighter and instructor. He has extensive training in advanced structural fire control, high angle rescue, and confined space and technical rescue operation and is a Hands-On Training instructor and past keynote speaker for FDIC and FDIC West.