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

After four firefighters were killed in Seattle, I decided to write an article for the newspaper in an attempt to tell the story of firefighters and their motivations as best I could.

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