Marketing ICS: Does the Public Really Know What a Firefighter Does?

Recently I had the opportunity to visit with the 80 year-old Chief Executive Officer of a company that has been dedicated to public fire education for over 40 years. I was amazed at his insight, understanding and creative thinking in the area of public fire education.

He noted to me that in his experience he has consistently found that our citizens really do not know what our firefighters do and why. This is true even when the opportunity comes to raise our awareness level after an incident in the "teachable moment," or on a broader scale during fie prevention week, or during his idea of "Firefighter Appreciation Week."

You may believe that it really doesn't matter if they know what we do and why because, after all, this is the service we are paid to deliver like any other profession. We all know that this is not true. We love the fire service in whatever form that "service" may take, whether it be suppression, prevention, public education or leadership.

But, what about the volunteer firefighters? They have the same motivation and the same passion for the profession. When citizens become involved in an incident, they see firefighters. Do you really think that they stop to consider whether the firefighters on the scene, or in the classroom, or at the inspection are volunteer or not?

So the thought occurred to me that, perhaps, one way to raise the awareness might be to give our citizens some information about firefighters, but from the heart. It is the heart that gains the kind of emotional loyalty from the public we will always require to continue to be firefighters. Our intelligence merely validates what our hearts know to be true.

On January 7th, 1995 four firefighters lost their lives in the horrible Pang warehouse fire set by an arsonist in Seattle and I was a fire commissioner in Woodinville, WA, at the time. The nature of the incident affected me and the entire Seattle metropolitan area. The four firefighters who died rushed into an inferno and fell through the floor to their deaths.

This loss of life brought home to me the danger and the motivation that came with the job. I decided to write an article for the main Seattle newspaper, The Seattle Post Intelligencer, in an attempt to tell the story of firefighters and their motivations as best I could. The paper published the article. Since that time I have sent the article to numerous communities which experienced the loss of firefighters in the line of duty, simply changing the first sentence so the article applied to the incident at the time and the particular community. The local paper has almost always printed the article. Quite frankly, I am getting tired of doing this because it points to the fact that "everyone is still not going home!"

As many of you know know, the excellent, excellent work of the Vision 20/20 Conference has set the stage for a paradigm shift that deals with actions instead of platitudes in bringing the fire problem in this country to a manageable level. We may never completely eradicate the problem, but we have within our grasp the means to do it now; and nothing is going to stop us. We will do it together.

With these thoughts in mind, I offer to each of you - if you find value in its use - a modification of my original article so you can submit it to your local or on-line newspaper. You don't have to wait for loss of life to submit it. Simply customize it by changing the opening paragraph to discuss some other fact about your department and insert your name or that of the person submitting the article. You may want to consult with your public information officer for guidance, or feel free to e-mail me for some direction at and I will help you customize it.

I offer it to you with my complements. The more our citizens know about what we do and the reasons why, the more they will understand the nature of the problem so that they can continue to support our efforts in protecting them. This is grass roots public service marketing and we all need to be a part of it.

The Noble Calling

"I wish my wife, my mother, everyone who ever asked me why I do what I do could see the humanity, the sympathy, the sadness of these eyes, because in them is the reason I continue to be a firefighter." - Report from Engine Company 82 By Dennis Smith

The consistent annual loss of our firefighters and the injuries they sustain so poignantly speak to the sacrifices of the front-line heroes who live and work among us everyday. As a former fire commissioner, I have been privileged to observe and learn about the reasons that motivate a person to become a firefighter.

The poet, Kalil Kibran once wrote, "Work is love made visible." If ever there were a better definition of a firefighter's work, this is it. We can observe the truth of this quote weekly on the nightly news.

While we know what firefighters do in situations like the ones that occurred on September 11, and during natural disasters and in our communities across the nation, what do they really do most of the time and why do they do it?

First let's set the scene. Very few people know that the U.S. has the worst record in the civilized world for destruction of life and property by fire. Most of these fires do not occur in large buildings or in catastrophic events, but in single-family homes. Fire departments answer around one million calls annually. A fire occurs in the U.S. about every 18 seconds.

The average number of people who die annually in fires in the U.S. is about 3,500. A person dies in a fire in the U.S. every hour. To gain some perspective of the problem, imagine two fully loaded 747 planes crashing in a mid-air collision every month, year in and year out. This has been our average annual record since the 1970's when it was much, much worse. This, of course, does not count the thousands of people who are maimed or horribly disfigured. The destruction of property is annually in the billions. Regardless of the horrific anomaly of September 11, this country continues to have a significant fire problem. We lose about 100 firefighters annually as well. This kind of loss does not occur in countries in Western Europe.

The reasons for this dubious record are topics for another discussion. The key issues revolve around the historical and cultural context of our understanding of how fire safety developed in America. The good news is that things have been improving over the last 15 years. In fact, fighting fires accounts for about two percent of the over 15 various activities of a firefighter today. These functions range from hazardous materials to terrorism to disaster preparedness and emergency management. Add to these a myriad of activities dealing with inspections, code enforcement, public education and prevention. The main portion of a firefighter's day is spent in EMS or emergency medical services. This latter function has become so vital for the simple reason that the firefighter is the first and last responder to any and all emergencies in the U.S., 24 hours a day, regardless of the incident.

Consider this scenario: you are awakened from a dead sleep. As you rush to the scene you receive a quick overview of the emergency you will face. That situation could be as simple as shortness of breath, a multiple car accident or the tallest building in the city that has become a raging inferno with thousands of people in it. You are the one who they call. You are the one who is supposed to know what to do. You are the professional. Do you think that firefighters take the time to consider, "I didn't sign on for this kind of situation?" So what do you do? You do what your values and mission dictate. That mission is the protection of life and property in just that order. Who else is going to do it?

Firefighters protect our citizens' first right as written in the constitution: "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Firefighters protect the first right so we can enjoy the other two. The history of this country is intertwined with firefighters. It is no coincidence that Ben Franklin founded the first fire department in America, the Friendship Fire Co. in Alexandria, VA, or that the first five presidents of the U.S. were volunteer firefighters.

Firefighters love being firefighters. Most firefighters wanted to be firefighters since they were small children. Many of the 1.5 million firefighters in this country are paid firefighters in one jurisdiction and volunteers in another community close by. The reason for this is because they love what they do so much.

Who are these people? Not so much your blue-collar worker anymore. Many firefighters have college degrees. An individual doesn't become a firefighter by accident. There can easily be as many as 200 applicants for every available position in a metropolitan department. All-night vigils just to apply to take the examination are not unusual. Passing this battery of tests allows one to become a "rookie" which has its own complex curriculum. After that it's constant training and study for the rest of one's career. The result is an extremely intelligent individual in superb physical condition responsible for our citizens' safety day and night.

The same kind of intelligence and motivation apply to volunteers. Were it not for the volunteer fire service in our country, the cost of fire protection could not be endured in such communities where it is a necessity.

This is no less so for senior fire officers and chiefs. Some of this country's finest leaders are fire chiefs and fire administrators bedecked with any number of advanced degrees. Most receive Master's Degrees in Public Administration, Chemistry, Engineering or Education. Being a leader in public safety in a metropolitan Fire and Emergency Services Department is every bit as challenging as that of a CEO in private enterprise. This is especially true considering the constant constraint on resources, the microscope of public opinion and the size of the "market" served.

The American public has always loved its firefighters. Some years ago the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press took a poll of how much the public trusts its institutions. The results of the poll indicated that among seven different public and agencies, fire departments ranked second only to one's family.

So what motivates people like the ones who work so hard to protect us in the performance of their duty every year? Edward Crocker, the Chief of the New York City Fire Department at the turn of the 19th Century, summarized it best when he said: "I have only one desire and that is to be a firefighter. The position may be a lowly one in the eyes of some. But those of us who do the work that firefighters must do consider it to be a noble calling. Our greatest moments come when we save lives. It is under the influence of such thoughts that we are driven to deeds of daring, even of final sacrifice."

There are many heroes in our society besides firefighters. But it is good to know when our loved ones are safe in their homes that there are professionals watching over them day and night: the ones living just down the street at the local firehouse drawn by a noble calling.

BEN MAY, a Contributing Editor,has been developing the discipline of fire and emergency services marketing management for the past 15 years. He has been a firefighter for Montgomery County, MD, Fire and Rescue and fire commissioner for the Woodinville, WA, Fire and Life Safety District. He has been a vice president of two international marketing firms over the last 25 years, and now is responsible for business development for Epcot at Walt Disney World Resort. Ben participated in the Six Days, Six Fires, 19 Children and 9 Adults Killed podcast on To read Ben's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach Ben by e-mail at