BY RICK LASKY
It wasn’t too long ago that I thought that all of the customer service pushing and shoving going on was not something in which I was interested as a firefighter. It wasn’t what I envisioned as part of a firefighter’s job. I didn’t really remember my dad doing it years ago when he was a firefighter in a southwest suburb of Chicago. I remember his cutting a lot of holes and busting a lot of windows and all of that, but I don’t remember him talking about customer service. So that was it. My mind was made up. I was going to do the three things that one of my fire service idols, Chief Jack MacCastland, said were the best things about being a firefighter: You can break things, swear, and get dirty—three things your mom never wanted you to do. Now, don’t get me wrong. “Mac” is one of the most forward-thinking people I know, but it was kind of cool to think about firefighting that way. So I wasn’t the least bit interested in this new customer service thing. Well, that was when I was younger and needed a lot of guidance and occasionally a whack on the head.
IT’S NOT REALLY NEW
I’ve come to realize that customer service is part of a firefighter’s job. The more I thought about it, the more I realized we were doing it already and have been doing it for a long, long time. In fact, my dad was doing it back in the ’60s. They didn’t call it customer service back then; they called it “boarding up the hole in the roof,” “covering the windows,” “cleaning up a little,” and “taking care of the family after the fire.” I was under the impression that to do “customer service things” I had to give up throwing water, cutting holes, pulling ceilings, and all of the other stuff. As a matter of fact, I had the same conversation with Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department Chief Alan Brunacini, the fire service’s Godfather of Customer Service. He said, “You know, you can still do all of that. We just need to help out the folks when we’re done.”
So we’re doing it in Lewisville, Texas, and we did it in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and the boys up north are still doing it. It was kind of easy. We told them, “The more stuff you do, the more stuff you get.” This obviously depends on your city’s economic situation. But, what do most city councils, mayors, and city managers want—problems or good things? Enough said. Why not go out and wow them for a change instead of letting the cops beat us to it? Let us be the favorite son or the shining star for a while. What’s funny about it is the troops love doing it. They’re having fun. They love the thank-yous and the newfound appreciation, and they feel great because they’re helping people and that’s why most of them got into this business in the first place.
(1) As part of the “Vested for Life” program, life jackets (swimming vests) are handed out to children who are not wearing one. (Photos by author.)
SOME SUCCESSFUL PROGRAMS
I’d like to share with you a few of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department’s programs and their successes—not to brag but to demonstrate what we’ve been able to do and how it has helped us.
Vested for Life Program
Lewisville, located just north of Dallas, has a recreational lake, Lewisville Lake, that sees more than 2.7 million visitors annually and has more than 300,000 residents living adjacent to it or who have indirect access to it. It’s a little more than 35,000 acres and is one of the busiest lakes in Texas. Taking that into consideration, it can be a pretty busy place for us call-wise; there are some 250-plus incidents a year. We see many accidents, stranded boats, and a variety of other calls, but we also see from five to 13 drownings a year. When you look at the drownings and the circumstances involved, one thing stands out clearly: We’ve never pulled anyone wearing a life jacket from the bottom of the lake.
With that in mind, we implemented our “Vested for Life” program. Our dive team goes out to our beaches and swimming areas on the weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The members give free swimmer life vests to any child who doesn’t have one and leave with the parents or guardians a lake safety brochure written in English and Spanish. The goal is to bring down the number of drownings and near-drownings.
“Blazing a Trail for Literacy” Program
Another program wowing our customers is “Blazing a Trail for Literacy,” one of our many elementary school programs. It encourages children to read. As most people know, reading is very important and is a fundamental building block in children’s development. We try to promote reading in numerous ways, because with good fundamentals children grow into good, contributing citizens. As fire chief, I read to children a couple of times a month and try to get to the elementary schools as well.
Along with that, Marty Turco, the goalie for the Dallas Stars hockey team and a Lewisville honorary fire chief, kicks off the program as our guest reader at some schools. The kids love it, he loves it, and it fits into his own “Stick with Reading” public service program. Our program features a reading contest that involves kindergartners through fifth graders at all 10 of our elementary schools. There is a winner at each grade level in each school (six students from each school)—the student who has read the most minutes. The students are rewarded with a backpack with our department patch on it; an autographed hockey card from goalie Marty Turco; and a ride to school on a fire truck, which drops them off in full view of their friends. The kids love it. The parents love it. And the teachers love it. If I had known that offering a ride to school in a fire truck was going to spark as much interest in reading as it did, I would have done it years ago.
(2) Dallas Stars hockey team goalie Marty Turco reads to a third-grade class, kicking off the “Blazing a Trail for Literacy” program.
“After the Fire” Program
One of our biggest programs is the “After the Fire” program. What’s great is that many fire departments already have one, and more and more are starting one. We wanted to take it to the highest level we could. Instead of handing the people a blanket when we’re done and wishing them well, we wanted to make sure that we did whatever we could to get them through a very hard and sometimes heartbreaking time. The program is broken down into two areas: “After the Fire Residential” and “After the Fire Commercial.”
The residential section is set up to assist residents who have suffered a fire loss or, for that matter, a flooding incident or pretty much anything that results in damage to their home or displaces them from their residence. For years, we have used the Red Cross, and we continue to do so, especially when there is a major loss or one involving a multiple-family dwelling with several families. The Red Cross does an awesome job. We just wanted to serve as the launching pad for this kind of assistance. With that in mind, we provide the following, often beginning while we are still fighting the fire. A representative from our department is assigned to assist the family. Depending on the severity of the incident, this can be anything from simply giving them our “After the Fire” booklet containing suggestions and some steps for getting them back on track to providing any and all of the services listed below:
- Contact their insurance agent and get an adjuster out quickly. Sometimes a call from the fire department gets a little quicker response.
- Attempt to have the occupants identify specific or special items in the home so we can try to retrieve them. It’s understood that probably everything in the home is important and special; but often some specific items, such as paperwork or family keepsakes, are what the family really needs and is worried about.
- Determine if the displaced residents have a place to stay. Several of our local hotels have offered a free night’s stay for those that have suffered a loss. This can be anywhere from one to three days or until the insurance company takes over. The hotels work with those who don’t have insurance as well.
- Several of our local restaurants have provided coupons for meals so that we can ensure that those affected by the incident get fed.
- If a resident’s medication cannot be retrieved or has been destroyed in the fire, the resident’s doctor can contact one of our pharmacies and the prescription will be filled without cost at any time, 24 hours a day.
- We can get eyeglasses, hearing aids, clothing, toys, and furniture for them.
- We have a public storage facility that will hold their belongings for four months for free.
- We have boxes, plastic bags, and storage bins for their belongings.
- If they need toiletry items such as toothpaste, a toothbrush, or deodorant, we have it for them. We also provide diapers and wipes for infants and toddlers.
- If they have pets, we can get them free emergency care, if needed, or overnight boarding.
The list goes on. Just recently, we placed in service our Customer Support Unit. We converted one of our two-ton ambulances, which was replaced by a new front-line rig, into a big rolling toolbox. It carries just about everything you could think of to assist someone after a fire: plywood, lumber, plastic, salvage covers, water vacuums, shop vacuums, generators, tools, and a very long list of other items our members thought might be necessary to assist customers suffering a loss. We’ve used the Customer Support Unit several times; each time, it receives compliments from those we help. For the most part, everything for this program and those items carried on the Customer Support Unit have been and continue to be donated.
For those affected by a commercial fire, we can get them moved to another location and get their phones transferred so that the next day someone will answer when one of their customers calls. We can offer them free office supplies and office furniture. Most of our businesses are not the larger corporations, not that we wouldn’t treat them the same way. But the larger operations usually have a risk management and recovery team to take care of the after-the-fire situation for them. We work with these smaller companies for days, if not weeks, to ensure that they make it back to some kind of normalcy. Every business lost represents a loss of revenue to the city, a loss of jobs to the citizens, and adds to the vacant property in the community. We want to be able to provide the foundation for stability in a time a crisis. The businesses that donate to the cause love doing so. In addition to helping someone in need, they realize it’s good for business. If I suffer a fire loss and the Residence Inn opens its doors to my family and me during such a traumatic time in our life, you can bet that when I’m traveling I’ll be staying in one of their hotels because they treat people like family.
(3) An ambulance recently removed from front-line service was refurbished to create this Customer Support Unit.
Santa Claus Program
Another program that gets a lot of praise from the public is our Santa Claus program. One of our “Santas” rides on the engine or truck and tours each neighborhood with lights and sirens, handing out candy. The kids love it, the parents love it, our bosses love it, and for the most part the troops love it, too.
And it doesn’t stop there. Like many other fire departments, we give away free smoke detectors and batteries, hold our annual Fire Prevention Week open house, sponsor an open house for foster children in April, and contribute to and assist with our public education programs throughout the year.
Opening Day at School Program
Our most recent program deals with our school zones. Every year during the first week of school, we send an apparatus to each elementary school during the morning drop-off and the afternoon pickup times. The apparatus, which sports a banner that says, “Please drive slow, school is back in session,” is parked in a highly visible spot with the warning lights on. And it’s working! The police tell us jokingly that it’s “muddying up” their fishing hole because people are slowing down and they’re not writing as many tickets. It’s a reminder for drivers passing through that school is back in session.
I mentioned earlier that department members like participating in these programs. They come in with all kinds of great ideas. And when you think about it, they’re the ones out with our citizens. They get to see just how far it can go. For people who enjoy helping other people (that’s the main reason they became firefighters), it takes it to another level. Most firefighters do all of this stuff and then some and don’t say anything about it. No bragging, they just have fun helping people. Often I get calls from citizens who say our members did this or that.
One citizen came up to me during an incident at her house and asked to speak with me about one of my firefighters. My first thought was, “What did he do?” She explained that he was inside folding her clothes. I asked her if he saw something he wasn’t supposed to, but she just smiled and said, “No.” She just thought it was awesome that he would do that for her. A little puzzled, I went in and asked this firefighter why. Now, this is a big guy with a shaved head and muscles in places where I don’t have places. I asked him what happened. He explained that the washer motor had burned out and they had shut off the power, which in turn shut off the dryer. I said, “OK, but why are you folding her clothes?” He said, “Because they would have gotten wrinkled.” As goofy as that sounds, he did it because that’s what he would have done at home.
Another call I received was from a neighbor about a response to her neighbor’s home. She explained that her neighbor is 70 years old and for the most part bed-ridden. She had fallen out of bed. When the firefighters got there, they discovered she had soiled herself very badly. The neighbor further explained that before the firefighters put her back in bed, they changed the linen on the bed and changed and cleaned her. She began to cry and said that she was amazed that our firefighters would treat a total stranger like this.
I explained to her that her neighbor was not a stranger. They treated her as if she were their mother, grandmother, or friend. That’s how you treat family.
Recently, I was contacted by a reporter from Reader’s Digest. She began to ask me questions about a call involving a man having a heart attack. Our firefighters continued to help with other things after the call had concluded. Once again, I didn’t have a clue about what she was talking about, because the firefighters rarely come back and brag about helping someone out. They, like so many others in the fire service, just consider it part of their job. But on this particular call, the person having the heart attack had just finished preparing his front lawn to lay new sod. The firefighters went out and handled the call and returned to quarters. When they got back, they began to discuss the man’s predicament: The sod that had just been delivered would die if the lawn wasn’t attended to. They got back on their rigs, went back to the house, stayed in-service, and laid all of the sod. They cleaned up, put the tools away, and commandeered a landscaping company from whom they borrowed lawnmowers and mowed the back lawn. Then they quietly went back to quarters and didn’t tell a soul. They didn’t come back and say, “Hey, Chief, guess what we just did?” They just went out, did it, and went back to the fire station. It’s almost gotten to the point where all three shifts try to outdo each other in going the extra mile to help someone with a problem.
As for support from the fire department administration, it’s simple. If it’s not illegal, immoral, or dishonest and will help someone, then do it! As for “the more stuff you do, the more stuff you get” thing, the city isn’t giving away the store, but our guys are getting raises and more people and positions. They just got 20-year retirement; for several years now, they’ve pretty much gotten everything they need and have asked for. It gets better each year. And the best thing of all is that they still get to be firefighters!
I’m still a “truckie” at heart, and I still like to go to fires, but this stuff really works. It may not work as well everywhere, but it does here. Call it what you want. If you don’t like the phrase “customer service,” call it something else. I think we’ll call it what my dad did about 40 years ago: “taking care of family.”
For more information about these programs. contact Lewisville Division Chief Jeff Smith at (972) 219-3739 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
RICK LASKY, a 23-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department. Previously, he was chief of the Coeur d’Alene (ID) Fire Department and training officer for the Darien-Woodridge (IL) and Bedford Park (IL) Fire Departments. While in Illinois, he taught at the Illinois Fire Service Institute and Illinois Fire Chiefs’ Association and received the 1996 International Society of Fire Service Instructors “Innovator of the Year” award for his part in developing the “Saving Our Own” program. He is the lead instructor for the H.O.T. Firefighter Survival program at FDIC West and is co-lead instructor for the program at FDIC. He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and serves on the FDIC and FDIC West advisory committees.