BY RICK LASKY
Whenever someone mentions customer ser- vice or marketing in the firehouse, a lot of our firefighters and officers lean back in their chairs, wrinkle their noses, and say, “Not again. What are they going to make us do now?”
But, with all that has happened since September 11, 2001, we’ve realized that if we don’t get good at marketing our fire department, our profession, we may be setting ourselves up to be squeezed out of the picture entirely. Just take a look at what’s going on in some cities where the police department is taking over EMS, haz mat, arson, homeland security, emergency management, and the list goes on, leaving some feeling helpless as they see their world self-destruct and disappear.
Well, the bottom line is, we don’t have to just sit by and let it happen. See, where we “missed the boat” is where police departments for years have been using some pretty good and creative ways and techniques when it comes to getting stuff. I hate to say this, but the fire service could learn from them on how to market our mission. A few years ago, Matt Moseley and David Rhodes, both with the Atlanta (GA) Fire Department, gave a presentation at FDIC in Indianapolis called “Marketing the Mission.” Moseley had been involved in a helicopter rescue that received national live media coverage, and he and Union President Rhodes used it to their advantage to get things for their department that were desperately needed. The point of their program was to explain their success and to demonstrate how you can accomplish some pretty neat things just by marketing what you do-just by going out and letting people know what we’re all about and that we’re not just sitting around and waiting for “the bell” to go off. We also must be honest and tell them that we need some things and that some of our fire departments are hurting and are trying to make it happen with little or no funding, usually while departments in other cities get what they need. You know something’s wrong when you see the amount of money going to law enforcement and fire departments still holding fund-raisers for thermal imaging cameras and other equipment or to keep personnel.
PROGRAMS THAT WORK
Now back to the question, “What are they going to make us do now?” There are many programs and activities we could use to market our mission. Believe it or not, many fire departments and firefighters are already using them; they’re just not telling the public about them. So many fire departments are already assisting families and businesses after a fire, reading in their schools, providing public education programs, helping those in need, and on and on; they just are not going out and bragging about them. Well, it’s time to start boasting about ALL that we do.
There’s nothing wrong with explaining to the public what we do besides putting out fires and cutting people out of cars and all of the news media-grabbing stuff. We should let it be known that we do so much more: We are truly an asset to the community, and we offer so much more than other public service agencies. I don’t mean to knock them, but it’s true. I know it’s hard to boast a little because firefighters truly are modest, hard-working people who do what we do because we love it. Not for the money; we all know that. Not for the glory, but because we love helping people. But, we need to get past that and go out and do some bragging.
Firefighters are a very proud breed, proud of what we do. We need to go out and fill people in on all the different things we do. I’ve always found it amazing and kind of fun to go out and give a talk to a service organization or homeowners group and see the surprised look on their faces when I tell them all our firefighters do. Time and time again, they come up to me afterward and say that they really didn’t know that we did all that. Often, they ask what they can do to help.
I shared some of our programs in Lewisville in the March 2004 issue of Fire Engineering in the article “Customer Service That Helps Your Department.” Our department does very well each year budgetwise, and I truly believe that it’s because of all our firefighters do-all of the customer service stuff that does nothing more than get us out there doing what we love to do, help people. We just have to go out and tell people that we’re doing it! Below is a short list of some of the programs that get us great results and get us out there:
“After the Fire” program regarding residential fires;
“After the Fire” program regarding commercial fires;
Placing in service our “Customer Support Unit” to assist in the “After the Fire” programs listed above;
Media Fire Academy;
Citizen’s Fire Academy;
Fire Prevention Week Open House;
A “mini fire prevention open house” for the foster children of Denton County;
Explorer Post 911;
“Santa Visits the Neighborhood” program;
“Vested for Life,” a life jacket program for child swimmers at Lake Lewisville;
“Blazing a Trail for Literacy,” a reading program and contest for grade-schoolers.
Public education “Clown” program;
“Shattered Dreams” program with our police, which deals with teen drinking and driving;
“Firehouse Fixins,” our fire department cable television cooking show;
“Five Alarms,” a cable show about our fire department;
Web page (cityoflewisville.com);
“The School Zone” program during the first week of school each year; and
The city’s Christmas parade, which we coordinate.
There is so much to be said for building good relationships. Unfortunately, there is a lot to be said about building poor relationships as well. When it comes to being able to market our mission, it doesn’t do a whole lot of good to have it known that we can’t get along with someone or with another agency. Nothing does more to ruin a lot of hard work than a story that gets out about how a fire department wouldn’t respond to assist another one or stood by while a building burned, when we’re suppose to be getting along and working as one team. The public doesn’t understand 20-year-old “feuds” or really get that departments don’t get along. They just assume-and rightfully so-that we all get along and work together, as it should be. When you go out and try to present a good image to the public and get asked questions about why this department didn’t respond to this one or something along that line, it kind of takes the wind out of your “sales pitch” sail and ruins a good moment.
I’m still amazed today when I see a fire in our area and hear how certain departments didn’t respond or were never requested even though they are in the next town over. Does it really matter what color your helmet or engine is or who didn’t get along with whom years ago? When it comes to that kind of thinking, forget about the customer; think about the safety of your personnel. Don’t let an ego that’s running amok jeopardize the safety of your firefighters. Remember one of our favorite sayings, “Egos eat brains.” Again, all it does is make it harder for you get all the things you want.
The same goes for how well you get along with your police department or any other city departments, for that matter. I remember having a rough start here when it came to our relationship with our public works department. Because of some issues that occurred several years before I got here, we had to waste a couple of years getting everything back on track to where we get along; we do now. We have a great relationship today. But the simple reality is we all need each other. If anything, our training for large-scale disasters has demonstrated our need to get along and work well with each other. Believe it or not, there are some big city fire departments that now realize that they can’t do it on their own and really do need to rely on their neighbors. And that’s not a bad thing!
The same applies to the type of relationship you have with the decision makers at city hall. Whether it’s the city manager, mayor, or city council-or anyone who controls the purse strings-how well do you get along with them? What kind of a relationship do you have? If you’ve ever wondered why you never get anything in the budget process or get beat down on an idea no matter how good it seems, take an honest look and ask yourself the previous question, and you’ll have your answer. I know that relationships just can’t be built with some people for a variety of reasons, probably because the person you’re dealing with has a head made of stone! But, it’s worth a try. You might be surprised at how it turns out. The main thing is to be adult and professional. Never allow yourself to be brought down to their level because those on the outside will notice. And again, just as important is building and strengthening those relationships with your neighboring fire departments. There’s just not a real good excuse for not working with each other or at least trying to work things out.
And while we’re on building relationships, remember to work hard at building those with the service organizations, homeowner associations, schools, PTAs, anyone who will listen, and don’t forget your seniors groups. They’ve paved the way for a lot of things, usually know everybody, and have a lot of pull when it comes to getting things done.
Finally, when it comes to marketing our departments and what we do, often the roadblocks we run up against were set up by some of our own people. It just takes some work to push them out of the way and work toward ways to get things done. Fight for your community’s support, the support from those at city hall, and that of the other city departments-and do so by leading by example. Be the first to “lay down your arms” and offer a way to get along.
Be innovative when it comes to selling an idea. Reasons based on safety or liability sometimes lose their power; you need to find another avenue and be creative.
Go out and brag about what we do-and I mean ALL that we do. There’s nothing wrong with going out and telling people that you care or explaining how you take care of folks.
Seize the moment, as was the case in Atlanta with Moseley and Rhodes. Pretty smart thinkers, if you ask me!
Be everywhere. The cops are. Get involved; try to be at every event, every function. And chief, let the guys go shopping for their meals. It’s not a waste of the taxpayers’ money; it gets us out with the public 365 more times a year.
Make a stand that we’re not going away and that what we do no one else can do as well. Fight to keep what we have; don’t let it slip away by sitting back and not getting involved.
So many have fought and bled for us over the years to get us where we are today. Don’t let what they did be wasted. GO OUT AND BRAG ABOUT THE FIRE SERVICE! ■