Bob Atlas: Branding Your Fire Department Through the Recruiting Process


Is your fire department living by the old adage, “200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress,” or have you embraced technology to catapult your organization into the 21st century?  Many of us have asked the same question over and over again, and we keep coming up with the same answer.  Well, that’s also the definition of insanity according to one of the most brilliant minds of our time, Albert Einstein.  So, you are in good company. 

The strategies and tactics we are about to cover will help you and your organization move smoothly and safely into the New Millennium.  Oh, by the way, if you haven’t noticed, we are already 14 years into it, and look at all that has changed.  The Global Positioning System was introduced in May 2000. Toyota introduced the Prius in July 2000. AT&T introduced text messaging in the United States in October  2000.  Wikipedia, like it or not, sparked the revolution of user-generated content in January 2001. Napster’s demise led to the dawning of file-sharing in July 2001.  The Human Genome Project was completed in April 2003. Facebook was launched in 2004, and Google went public in August of the same year. In November 2006, Nintendo revolutionized the video game world with the Wii. Just look in your pocket or on your desk, and you can see just how technologically advanced you are. Also, like it or not, the apple IPhone, introduced in June 2007, changed the way we communicate and how we are entertained. 

The fire service has made significant changes as well. Just look at the widespread use of the incident command system today compared to the turn of the century. Self-contained breathing apparatus now have integrated personal alert safety system  devices. Turnout gear has improved significantly. Apparatus have become safer.  Thermal imaging technology has led to more effective emergency operations. We now train more often with other agencies and other public safety disciplines, and we take more time to be health conscious.  Look inside your own station. You will find fire service publications of all kinds, books, videos and a myriad of other training tools such as computers, tablets, and the Internet, to name a few of the newer advances.

Today’s generation of taxpayers and firefighters want information quick and accessible at the click of a mouse or the tap of a finger. Our responsibility to these customers in this environment is the same as it is when we respond on a 911 emergency call. We must treat them with respect and dignity and provide them with information to make them comfortable with who we are and what we do. The crux of our public perception problem today is that we have lost some favorability with many in our communities.  There is hope, however; it comes in the form of using technology and the recruiting process to brand our organizations.

To achieve accurate communication with our target audience, we must establish a basic understanding of how today’s Internet marketing strategies are applied in the revolution of information distribution. The core concept that is critical to accept is that we can no longer just sit on the sidelines and wait for the public to stand up for us because we are good people doing good things.  Although this may be true, waiting around is a flawed strategy and has cost us dearly. Other public safety disciplines have been using sound, universally recognized marketing principles for a long time and have been very successful with them.

There are three precepts we must master:  

1.   What you say about yourself.

2.   What you say about others.

3.   What others say about you

If you learn and apply these basic concepts to your messages and disseminate them to your audience with sincere enthusiasm, you will without a doubt promote your department well across all of the information outlets, including the Internet. 

You are probably asking, How do we execute these new strategies successfully?  The most important part of this process to recognize is that the days of keeping a closed house or just keeping information to yourself are over. You must learn to use the most powerful words of this century, SHARE and COLLABORATE. If you remember to cooperate, as you were taught in grade school, your structure will be sound. If you choose to remain closed, there can be no room for advancement.

Let’s break down the marketing model and expose the questions you will need to ask yourself.  Your answers will assist you in evaluating where your department stands in the New Media environment.

What You Say About Yourself

•      With what management platform are you managing your Web site?

•      Is your Web site 1.0 or 2.0? Simply put, is your Web site just throwing out a mass of information, or is it engaging with the community?

•      Is your platform mobile friendly, and does it communicate across all browsers?

•      Are you applying tags, descriptions, and titles to all of your content? 

•      Is your department “Branded” properly for the community, and does the community relate to and want to be a part of your process?

•      What “Call to Action” strategy are you using?

•      Do you have proper analytic tools on the back end of your Web site?

•      Have you analyzed your audience to know which social tools they use the most?

•      Are you applying the content placement model for each event and incident in which your organization is involved?

•      Are you utilizing lead generation to effectively communicate your message?

        You must (1) Tell them what you are going to do, (2) Tell them what you are  

        doing, and (3) Tell them what you did.

What You Say About Others

•         Are you utilizing the user generated content (UGC) method from other sources?

•         Are you participating on others blogs and social networks as an evangelist of your department’s message?

•         Have you established relationships with local media outlets and social groups on a grassroots level?

•         Do you advertise and share events and incidents other than yours to bring the community and candidates to your message?

•         Does your community know your firefighters on a personal level?

•         Have you selected a citizen of the year award to acknowledge community participation?

What Others Say About You

•         Is your Web presence known on other sites that command traffic and have a high degree of credibility?

•         Does the community share and socially participate in your content? 

•         Is your content recognized by the broad search engines?

•         Do you repost and recognize the content that others say about your department (Cross Pollination)?

Employing New Media strategies and production via the Internet is very similar to fighting a fire. You must have solid strategies and tactics to engage the new technology experience just as you would that large commercial fire burning from stem to stern. Using your department’s hiring process is just one tool you can use to put out the fire. The solution is rather straightforward. If you are starting from scratch, we recommend you begin by identifying what the community and future firefighters want from you.  With this information in hand and the answers to the previous questions, you can begin to craft your information distribution plan. The bottom line in all of this is that you have an effective branding method in this new digital world. If you don’t know the answers to the questions posed earlier, look deep into your organization and seek out those answers. 

Fortunately, if you choose now to embrace New Media technology and the relationships you and your organization have successfully built, you can be successful at branding your department. Whether your department is doing well now or not, you will have to adopt some or all of this strategy in the near future.  The future taxpayers have already welcomed it into their lives. Do not get left behind. There is too much at stake.

BOB ATLAS, a 17-year veteran of the fire service, is a battalion chief with Contra Costa Fire and a co-founder of Fire Alumni. He has written proposals for and manages $20 million in grant monies. He  has a B.S. degree in engineering, an A.S. degree in fire science, and is a certified fire officer and fire instructor.

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