Rule 9: Be the Customer Service Advocate

No set of rules could be complete without discussing the need for and the application of customer service. It is amazing how times have changed and along with that so must our focus. When I first started in the department in late 1971, the "customer" was clearly seen as the emergency event. It seemed like it was almost painful and disrespectful to talk directly to our real customers (the humans) that were having a really bad day.

In some ways, the people associated with the problem were seen as an impediment to resolving the emergency at hand, and not somebody that we would ever talk to or comfort during our operations. As a young firefighter, it was a lot simpler dealing with just the emergency event. Apparently, there wasn't a need to interact with the people that were in great distress; perhaps that was the job of the police. I would say that we went to great lengths to separate the people that were suffering through an event from the event itself.

I can remember heading off to a car fire that occurred on a limited-access highway. That was very exciting! The large, billowing column of thick, black, highly carbonaceous smoke could be seen for miles. The traffic had been stopped by our police partners and our folks were focused on the action like a laser beam. We were riding in on the BRT (big red truck) to save the day, just like it should be, "textbook style." Our supply hoseline was laid to one of the many hydrant access points on this highway and the attack line was stretched just like we were taught to do. Poetry in motion. This time, there was a big crowd of people (perhaps this was because of the time of day, the location and billowing smoke cloud) and we needed to be perfect under such public scrutiny.

As the operation progressed, the fire was knocked down in just a few minutes and the smoke's intensity died as the flames diminished. The "layout" person moved into position to open the hood with the assistance of the lieutenant using the flat-head axe and Halligan tool. The tactics of the day were going well at this point. So far, so good, as the raging car fire was extinguished. After opening the hood, which exposed the bulk of the fire, the same two members moved to force the trunk and interior to check for fire extension in those compartments as well. Inside of four minutes or so, we had the upper hand on this blaze, and as always, it felt good to "tame the beast."

You likely can guess what happened next. The members of the engine crew completed a thorough overhaul of this once-nice-looking Chevy, making sure that the fire was completely extinguished. Then, we (the remainder of the crew) cleaned up our tools and appliances, using the booster line, while we waited for the fire investigators to arrive. Our officer spoke to the passengers of the barbecued automobile to obtain the basic information (name, address, insurance, etc.) for the all important fire report preparation. Within the next 30 minutes or so, I was standing on the dirty 1½-inch hose rolls on the back step (not so bright, but remember the era) headed back to quarters to finish the job of being ready to respond to the next alarm.

About the only thought that we had about the people involved in this vignette was the thought that we hoped they didn't get hit by other cars while they stood out on a high-speed road. The ambulance crew was always busy and they didn't need any more calls for service that day. There you have it, another satisfied customer! Or so we thought.

We extinguished their car fire in minutes and had only a few seconds of discussion and interaction with the "victims." And, the last act of "their" fire department, when we departed, was to cover this stunned older couple in a cloud of diesel exhaust. Now that should be pleasing "customer service" to any taxpaying citizen. How can you not love the firefighters that are willing to risk their lives to save your property from destruction, and don't have hardly a word to say to you, or even help you out of a bad situation?

When this situation presents itself nowadays, we should have a completely different and more comprehensive approach to solving this situation. First, we need to properly and quickly resolve any emergency situation by flawlessly executing the basics of our job (see "Rule 3: Flawlessly Execute the Basics of Your Job," Firehouse®, July 2009). Once we have the upper hand at resolving the situation, we must focus on the people that are directly and sometimes indirectly involved in getting through and recovering from this emergency. This means that the focus must become helping the humans that are impacted and the only way that we can do that is to open a line of professional, but frank communications. Most folks will not have a lot of experience at calling on your services. This will likely be the first and hopefully the last time they are users of your community's response system. So, try to make a lasting great first impression with your skills, knowledge, abilities and professional demeanor.

Going back to the car-fire case study, consider if we had taken a few extra minutes to pack up the couple and take them to a place where they could get the help they needed. The list of immediate issues that needed resolution was very obvious to get those folks back on track. The unlucky couple needed a place to get out of the traffic, use a telephone (before cell phones were in general use) to call their insurance company, and call to have their car towed and repaired. And finally, a way to connect to a replacement rental car to complete their trip and regain control of their situation. No big deal to help with any one or all of these items and it is the right thing to do.

How times change. It seemed like life was so much simpler when we didn't have to interact so much with the people we serve. But when you think about the work that we do and the close connection we must build with the people experiencing an emergency, it just makes good sense to provide for the needs of our customers in a more direct and personal way. The above case study simplifies the general philosophy that needs to be applied; however, the opportunities to add value to what we do every day are endless.

I guess we have Chief Alan Brunacini to blame for this dramatic change for the better. And, once your organization takes and truly embraces the customer service journey, the rewards will be amazing. They will first appear as kind notes and letters and ultimately as support in the all-important political arena. Never lose sight of the fact that is how we get funded with the resources to do our job.

DENNIS L. RUBIN, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is chief of the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. Previously, Rubin was chief of the Atlanta, GA, Fire and Rescue Department. He holds a bachelor of science degree in fire administration from the University of Maryland and an associate in applied science degree in fire science management from Northern Virginia Community College, and is enrolled in the Fire and Emergency Management Administration program at the graduate school of Oklahoma State University. Rubin is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officers Program, is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) and has obtained the Chief Fire Officer Designation (CFOD) from by the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He is an adjunct faculty member of the National Fire Academy since 1983. Rubin is the author of the book Rube's Rules for Survival.