Customer Service: A View from the Other Side

By SUSANNA SCHMITT WILLIAMS

We all get those “aha” moments when things click into place. I recently had a huge “aha” moment on June 30, 2012, while heading to vacation in the mountains of Tioga County, Pennsylvania, with my two boys, ages 5 and 9. We were driving from the coast of North Carolina to Pennsylvania and had camped the night before in Virginia. We were on the last leg of a six-hour road trip in the car to meet family, roughly 15 miles from the cabin where we were vacationing. I was exhausted and zoning out while driving. Lost in my thoughts, I noticed the smell of something burning, eerily similar to every car fire call on which I had ever been. Here we were, on a rural mountain highway, and no other vehicles around to elicit this smell.

Every nerve was now at attention. I sat up in the driver’s seat, scanning the hood of the car and the dash. My nine-year-old then said, “Mommy, I smell something burning.” I scanned my mirrors; on my passenger side mirror, I saw flames coming from the rear corner of my Jeep.

I yelled the first expletive that came to mind and then said, “The car’s on fire!” I had already started slowing down, but now I slammed on the brakes and prepared to get the kids (who were now borderline panicking) out of the car. While stopping the car, I told them to get out and go to the front of the car. Watching them to make sure they got out, I grabbed my cell phone and got out to meet them at the front of the vehicle. On our right were woods, and across the street was a field. I started to herd the kids across the street to the field when I saw a Pennsylvania state trooper crest over the hill, heading in our direction. I waved my arms, pointed to the car, and motioned for him to call it in. While he was on the radio with dispatch, I dialed my parents and had my nine-year-old tell them that the car was on fire and to ask them to head down to Highway 414 to pick us up.

I then asked the trooper if he had an extinguisher I could use. After an exchange of words and some persuasion on my part, he reluctantly gave it to me. At this point, the rear window on the Jeep was shattering, bike tires were popping, and my boys were jumping every time they heard something new. At the trooper’s suggestion, I placed my boys in the back seat of the patrol car, and I was off with the extinguisher.

I was now attempting to knock back the fire. Luckily, a waste management truck drove by and the driver stopped to give me his extinguisher. Now with two extinguishers, I knocked a majority of the fire down. Almost immediately, the Morris Township (PA) Volunteer Fire Department (MTVFD) and Liberty Township (PA) Volunteer Fire Department (LTVFD) arrived on scene and finished the job I had started. The firefighters pulled a line and hit what was still smoldering. The incident was closer to Morris County but was actually in Liberty’s jurisdiction; hence, both departments were dispatched.

Standing with my boys, my parents, a state trooper, and firefighters from two departments, I was looking at the charred remains of clothes, bikes, fishing rods (photos 1, 2)-pretty much our entire vacation, thinking, “What now?” I gave information to the trooper. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t upset. I was empty.

Photos by William A. Schmitt.
1 Photos by William A. Schmitt.
Photos by William A. Schmitt.
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MTVFD Assistant Chief Tim Kreger then asked, “How about we help you get out what might be able to be salvaged?” Kreger and his crew, along with the LTVFD crew, began helping me with the salvage as well as carrying items to my parents’ pickup truck. What transpired next led to my “aha” moment.

Most departments want to be seen as having great customer service. We pride ourselves on aiding citizens at a time when they need help. But are we doing enough? We aid citizens when they are experiencing the worst moment in their lives. Whether it is an EMT call for a loved one, fighting to save a family home from a fire, or extinguishing a vehicle fire for a vacationing family, we are there. But what about during and after the event? Are we simply packing up and heading back to the firehouse, or do we reach out to continue helping? After reflecting on my vehicle fire-where I was the customer-I would say no. The MTVFD and the LTVFD exhibited great customer service; their actions showed me how we can do better.

I have been a firefighter for 14 years, and I have fought vehicle fires. I knew what was happening during the course of events as they unfolded, yet I still experienced a sort of detachment. What about the citizen with NO experience prior to what he is seeing now? Does it reflect how my boys felt-scared to death, in shock, watching their personal items being destroyed? Were they like me, feeling lost, empty, and detached from what they were watching unfold in front of their eyes? What are we doing to get them through that lost feeling and to pick up the pieces? Do we have an obligation to do something?

I have reflected and thought a lot about these questions since my incident. My perspective on customer service has changed. I THOUGHT I gave good customer service before, but it isn’t enough.

CUSTOMER SERVICE: WHAT THE CITIZEN REALLY NEEDS

What can you do to step up your level of customer service after an emergency? A lot. It will take some time and effort, but the benefits to the citizen are priceless. At its core, it boils down to treating the citizen as if he or she were your mother, father, brother, or sister who just experienced the emergency. What would you want done for them during and after an incident? Based on my experiences of viewing an incident from the other side, I would do the following: During the event (if your department does not already do so), assign one of your personnel to the citizen as early as possible on arrival. For some departments, this may be hard considering their personnel numbers. However, make every effort to explain to the citizen what crews are doing and see if the citizen needs anything or has any questions. You are the authority figure on scene. What better reassurance to the citizen than if the authority figure makes a connection with and reaches out to him?

Recently, I responded to a structure fire: textbook room and contents. By the time I arrived from my office, crews had the fire out. One resident was home at the time and was crumpled on the lawn across the street. Her son was at school, and she was devastated not only because of the fire but because she had lost the family pet in the fire. I stayed with her, got her a bottle of water, found a chair for her to sit on, and answered her questions. We coordinated with neighbors for someone to pick up her son from school and arranged for her to go inside afterward with one of the firefighters to retrieve some personal belongings. We also coordinated finding her a place to stay with family. We even buried the family pet in the backyard for her. Would this have been done had I not arrived? What if I had been given an assignment other than to go check on the resident? Would anyone else have been assigned this? I did not realize at the time how much this can mean to a citizen. Most departments may already be doing this, but are you making a conscious effort? Is it part of your standard operating guidelines that you will establish a liaison, someone to champion the citizen, during the course of the event?

While working at a previous department, Chief Dorian Flowers of Hendersonville (NC) Fire exhibited this type of customer service. A family was displaced because of a house fire, and the Red Cross had secured them a hotel. One problem was that the family had a dog. They were not willing to be separated from it, and the hotel the Red Cross secured did not allow pets. As a result, Flowers started calling hotels until he found one that accepted pets. About 15 minutes worth of work left this family with a lasting impression of the fire department. Would your department have walked away leaving the family to figure out what to do with the family pet?

Make a connection with the citizen, even if it is just to give a reassuring touch on the arm. The power of human touch is often forgotten. While salvaging what we could from my now toasted Jeep, I managed to cut my finger-not a deep cut but enough to bleed steadily. Kreger approached me and said, “Here,” handing me a rag; he squeezed my arm and went to find me a bandage. As a 37-year-old mother of two boys, I have had plenty of experience with bandages, yet Kreger’s simple gesture of bandaging my finger and that supporting, everything-is-going-to-be-okay arm squeeze meant a lot to me.

Give the citizen your contact information. Having a point of contact within the department will be very reassuring for the citizen. The citizen will have a lot of questions. Reach out to him and send him a fire report; ask him by what means he would like to receive it (i.e., mail, e-mail, fax) and then follow through. Touch base with the citizen a couple of days after the event, asking, “Is there anything we can do for you?” Reach out, even if it is just to ask, “How are you doing?” Kreger and LTVFD Chief Andrew O’Connors did this for me in the weeks following, and it made me think about how the citizen could benefit from this. Of course, I had the connection of being a fellow firefighter, but making such a connection is a win-win situation for all involved. The citizen gets a level of comfort at a time when he needs it; considering the support we get from the public, quality customer service is the perfect way to reciprocate. A quick five-minute phone call can prove to be invaluable. In trying to retrieve fire reports from my vehicle fire, I have now formed two new friendships in the fire service-Kreger and O’Connors-nearly 650 miles away from where I live. Both have been priceless in forming that connection and then checking up on and supporting me.

So, what else can you do? Create checklists and brochures on things to do, what to expect next, what to expect in behavior from affected children, and shopping lists for things the citizen might need to buy. Visit the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) “After the Fire” Web page (www.usfa.fema.gov/citizens/atf), which is a great starting point for citizens. FEMA’s site details a structure fire (it does not include other incident types) and discusses other high-level items such as insurance, mortgages, and so on.

What if the citizen does not have access to a computer? What about the smaller, simple things such as the citizen figuring out what to do for the next meal since the chicken left out on the counter is now burnt to a crisp? Would it take much for you to have a packet of information already printed to give to citizens? My mom, Johanna Schmitt, opened my eyes to this. Before returning to the cabin, unbeknownst to me, she had started making a shopping list. We had nothing but the clothes on our backs, and I needed to get to a store soon (it was about 3:30 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon at that point). Had it not been for my mom’s list, I probably would have been wandering aimlessly around the department store on a Saturday evening. However, my mom kept me centered and focused.

Based on this, suggest to a relative who arrives on scene in support of a citizen who just faced an emergency to create this list. I was still reeling from the afternoon’s events, and I was finding it hard to concentrate. Without my mom, I might still be wandering around the store, talking to myself.

With a little extra effort, you can step up your customer service. Do the things that leave a lasting impression with citizens, enhancing the tradition of being there in a time of need.

Author’s note: Thanks to LTVFD members Chief Andrew O’Connors, Assistant Chief Harry Colegrove, Firefighter Frank Ziobro, EMT Nancy Matthews, and EMS Lieutenant Brenda Colegrove; MTVFD members Chief Dean Kreger, Assistant Chief Tim Kreger, Firefighter Aaron Miller, Firefighter Robby Person, Firefighter Mike Williamee, and EMT Amos Osborn; and Pennsylvania State Trooper Messner.

SUSANNA SCHMITT WILLIAMS is a 14-year fire service veteran and division chief of training and standards for the Jacksonville (NC) Fire Department. She has volunteered as a firefighter with the Graham (NC) Fire Department and has worked as a firefighter/EMT, master firefighter/EMT, driver operator/EMT-I, volunteer program coordinator, and captain. Williams has also presented at national and state level seminars and is the co-moderator for the NC FireHouseĀ® Software Users Group. Williams graduated from Temple University and is pursuing a master’s degree in public administration from Anna Maria College.

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