Marketing Change in the Fire Service: A Model from the United Kingdom

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As the United States continues to have one of the worst fire problems in the Western world, Fire Prevention Week is the best time to see how a large fire department in the United Kingdom effected a paradigm shift in its approach to its own rampant fire problem. This involved courageous leadership and the cooperation of every firefighter. The elements of this innovative, successful approach are outlined in the following interview.

Two years ago, I received a call from Chief Tony McGuirk of the Merseyside Fire & Rescue Service in England. He asked me if he could send two fire officers to Epcot at Walt Disney World Resort to see our interactive fire education exhibit, "Where's the Fire?" presented by Liberty Mutual Insurance (Firehouse®, March 2005). He wanted to understand its effectiveness and to see how he might create something like it in his city. Little did I know that I would become friends with one of the most progressive fire chiefs I have known. We have developed a great relationship in which I have become his student. He has applied the applications of fire service marketing management to create a paradigm shift in fire protection in his jurisdiction. He was kind enough to grant an interview. It is packed with information and education for any department that wants to make significant change to attack the fire problem.

McGuirk entered public service as a firefighter over 30 years ago in Manchester, England, and has been the chief fire officer of the Merseyside Fire & Rescue Service for the past five years. Merseyside has 26 fire stations, employs over 1,400 operational personnel, and its annual revenue budget of £72($140) million makes it one of the largest metropolitan fire services in the UK. McGuirk has a master of science degree in human resource management, is a graduate of the Civil Service Top Managers program, and in 2006 he completed the Harvard Business School Leading Change and Organizational Renewal Program (LCOR). On behalf of the government, he chairs the national Leadership Stakeholders forum, a body responsible for implementing a new leadership approach and style in UK fire and rescue services. He represents the UK in the Federation of European Fire Officer Associations. He has presented professional papers at international fire conferences in Europe, New Zealand, Australia and the U.S. He is a qualified fire engineer and in 2006 was awarded the Queen's Fire Service Medal. In 2008, his brigade will host the World Firefighter Games in Liverpool.

FIREHOUSE: Please describe your jurisdiction and the department.

McGUIRK: Merseyside is a metropolitan area in the northwest of England encompassing five local authorities — Liverpool, Knowsley, Sefton, St. Helens and Wirral. The main city is Liverpool, and the county covers an area of 653 square kilometers. One and a half million people live in Merseyside. The population is largely white with the strongest concentration of non-white ethnic groups in Liverpool, where they make up 5.7% of the population.

Merseyside has large pockets of deprivation with associated high levels of social exclusion, crime and incidents of fire. All the five districts covered by the fire department are in the 25% most deprived in the country. Liverpool is ranked the number-one most deprived area in the country and Knowsley the third most deprived. Research strongly indicates a link between local socio-economic factors and the incidence of fires.

A range of factors in Merseyside increase the risk of death and injury from fire. The number of economically active people and educational achievement is below the national average. Health statistics show high levels of smoking and generally incidents of chronic diseases are higher than the national average.

In all Merseyside authorities, male life expectancy and the percentage of households where one or more persons has a limiting long-term illness are among the worst 25% in the country. There is an increasingly aging population, and the number of pensioners living alone in Merseyside has increased by more than the national average in the last 10 years along with those with long-term debilitating illness. Older people are at high risk of fire especially if they are poor, live alone, have limited mobility, and smoke and/or drink alcohol.

FIREHOUSE: What were some of the major lessons you have learned along the way as chief about leadership and the fire service?

McGUIRK: An individual leader alone, no matter how heroic, is unlikely to implement change successfully. Managing change requires integrated and cohesive senior teams. These teams are the most powerful signal generators in an organization; they extend and institutionalize the leadership and management of innovation and change. There are several things successful leaders can do to develop effective, visible and dynamic senior teams.

From the start, the team must be seen as an extension of the individual leader. Its members need to be given the autonomy and resources to serve effectively — objective empowerment — and the organization needs to be sent clear messages, through the use of titles and formal roles associated with the change, that team members are speaking for the leader — symbolic empowerment.

FIREHOUSE: As a chief, how have you come to understand the term marketing, and its uses for the fire service?

McGUIRK: While undertaking research as part of some further education a few years ago, I became interested in the whole concept of marketing. I had typically confused the concept of marketing with PR and advertising, but the concept of marketing is much broader. Marketing is the management process, which identifies, anticipates and supplies customer requirements efficiently and profitably. It is an activity that goes considerably beyond the selling of toothpaste or soap.

Political contests such as your current presidential campaigns remind us that candidates are marketed; student recruitment in colleges reminds us that higher education is marketed; and fund-raising reminds us that "causes" are marketed. ...I therefore examined whether the principles of "good" marketing in traditional product areas were transferable to the marketing of services, persons and ideas. The answer is that they undoubtedly are, but they are applied differently. Marketing in the fire service is what I would call managing for a social result. Managers orchestrate resources to produce value. That value should provide the focus for all their activities. It is the nature of the value they produce which distinguishes public service managers from their colleagues in business. ...Public managers have to produce social results, not just financial ones. In the fire service this means that now we have to achieve a "safer community" rather than just respond to emergencies.

FIREHOUSE: When you came to Merseyside, what were the major challenges you faced in all areas of the department?

McGUIRK: The main issue was resistance to change in the workforce, as well as a public perception that was entirely focused on response.

FIREHOUSE: What were the key initiatives you wanted to move forward?

McGUIRK: I have initiated a complex community public health program throughout Merseyside and over 350,000 homes have been visited, the risks to health (including fire) assessed by operational firefighters and free smoke alarms have been installed by operational firefighters. The program has been entirely funded by making organizational efficiencies. Prior to this initiative, Merseyside had one of the highest levels of fire death and injury in the Western world.

Our research showed that over half of all fatalities occur before the fire and rescue services are called out, the huge majority of accidental fire fatalities were in their own home and the majority of these victims were in the room of origin. Stopping fires occurring in the first place is the most effective way to save lives and make communities safer. In common with other fire and rescue services around the world, we operate a range of community fire safety initiatives to promote fire safety; however, generic education and awareness campaigns typically struggle to reach those most at risk.

In Merseyside we have taken a different approach through our home fire safety campaign. This initiative directly targets the risk by a Home Fire Risk Assessment (HFRA). This free risk assessment is offered to every household in an area. The HFRA not only reduces the potential for fire hazard, by identifying the fire risks and measures to reduce the potential; but also provides measures to detect and prevent significant fire hazard development, with smoke detector(s), where appropriate being fitted, free of charge; and provision is made to mitigate the consequences, with an agreed practical "fire plan" established

The resulting HFRA database linked with the fire incident record data base has the potential to become the single most important fire risk-related data set in the UK.

FIREHOUSE: How did you use marketing and public communications to gain your initiatives?

McGUIRK: Over the past four years, I have introduced a concept known as Integrated Risk Management, IRM, with the clear aim of achieving our vision: To make Merseyside safer. IRM as a concept is government driven; however, as a reality it is very much a local approach. It is also very much a marketing approach. This process has three elements essential to its success.

  • Risk analysis
  • Risk modeling
  • Operational delivery of community fire safety

FIREHOUSE: How did you measure the results and convey to the citizens?

McGUIRK: My approach has been underpinned by a strong emphasis on performance review and management. Since 2002, 13 out of 17 comparable national performance indicators have improved. Over the past three years, the number of fire deaths has fallen by over 60%, and Merseyside is one of the best-performing services in the country.

In addition to delivering major improvements in performance, from within existing resources, I have also had to deliver large reductions in tax. This has involved some tough decisions, in addition to a constant emphasis on delivering efficiency and change through strong performance management. There is a strong performance culture, which is helping to drive improvement. ...Every watch and station is set a range of targets for the number of homes they visit, and we have a very well-developed performance management regime. We report regularly to political leaders and all of our performance data is accessible by the community through the web, in real time. Any citizen can check their local station performance and compare it against other stations.

FIREHOUSE: What role did prevention and public education play in your initiatives? What role did customer service play?

McGUIRK: Every home is offered a free home fire risk assessment, in which a member of our service, usually an operational firefighter, visits the home and advises on fire safety measures, produces a fire escape plan, and fits 10-year alarms free of charge. Since 1999, our staff has carried out over 350,000 free home fire risk assessments, fitting over 550,000 smoke alarms. We have set up the world's first fire safety customer call center: Fire Service Direct. This is a dedicated call center using different operators to dispatch which targets areas of Merseyside to book HFRAs for firefighters to carry out. This frees-up fire station personnel to carry out HFRAs as opposed to spending time on administration.

We have contracted a call-management company to generate 60,000 HFRA appointments per year. We have also created a database that includes all relevant information from the origin of call to completion of HFRA. It allows practitioners to target resources at the hard-to-reach vulnerable groups and communities. The database helps us determine which of our community safety initiatives are successful, verify the timescales for HFRAs being carried out, and record the numbers and reasons for cancellations and areas of slow take up.

Our community fire safety services also include the concept of fire safety advocates. This approach seeks to recruit members from community groups that are typically difficult for us to access. We started with three bilingual advocates (Somali, Chinese and Arabic speaking). The advocates program has now been extended to include advocates for older people, youth advocates, deaf advocates and arson-reduction advocates. Future advocates will include those to address the connection between alcohol and drug use and the incidence of fires, deaths and injuries. This enables to connect with hard-to-reach and high-risk groups. As well as the advocates program, there are many initiatives, which target those most at risk, for example the elderly.

We run comprehensive youth programs targeted at those most in need with development programs operating for age groups through to 25 years. This is aimed at connecting with young people to reduce the potential for incidents of anti-social behavior, reducing crime and helping to secure better value for money for both ourselves and our partners, by keeping these individuals occupied in a positive personal development program. Our Youth Engagement Strategy includes dedicated youth workers, the placement of firefighters in schools in rundown areas of our community, referrals into our programs for young people caught playing with fire, fire cadets and a partnership with schools to engage children at risk from social exclusion...

Volunteers also carry out valuable community fire safety work and after fire care through our ground breaking "Fire Support Network", and we have over 300 members of the community volunteering to support fire prevention and fire safety.

FIREHOUSE: What is your internal approach — within the department, personnel, leadership, and management issues — to get your initiatives through?

McGUIRK: As chief fire officer, I provide high-profile, visible leadership involving facing tough challenges in improving performance and getting results. My style of leadership is transformational and this requires characteristics such as the capacity to work hard, courage, decisiveness, energy, enthusiasm, resilience, tough mindedness and a sense of humor. I believe in leadership by example and I set the very highest standards of personal behavior and in my approach to work. What I do, what I say and the way I behave must all be sensitive to the environment in which I work. For me, achieving high personal standards is not an activity, but more a way of approaching life.

The phrase I most hate is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." This is the slogan of the complacent, the arrogant or the scared. It's an excuse for inaction. It's a mind-set that assumes — or hopes — that today's realities will continue tomorrow in a tidy, linear and predictable fashion. I have introduced a wide range of innovations to the service at both an organizational and operational level, developed through engagement with our personnel. I ensure that all staff have a good understanding and involvement in the priorities set by the authority. Feedback from staff has resulted in changes, which strengthens a culture of engagement and ownership of change. Two examples of this approach are the introduction of a fire response motorbike and a small fires unit; both ideas were put forward by front-line staff.

The unique Fire Bike (motorcycle) initiative operating in the city center targets automatic fire alarms, particularly at the beginning and end of the working day when such alarms are at a peak. It undertakes community safety work at other times of the day. The small fires unit is a unique response vehicle, staffed on a flexible basis. It attended nearly 1,000 incidents during its first eight months of operation, which substantially reduces the need to deploy more expensive resources.

FIREHOUSE: Knowing a bit of the U.S. fire problem, what lessons have you have learned in the UK that could be applied in the U.S.?

McGUIRK: I think the biggest lesson is to re-engineer our business from a response-based service to a prevention-based service. At the heart of this approach is a changed philosophy which places the fire and rescue service at the heart of community engagement.

BEN MAY, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been developing the discipline of fire and emergency services marketing management for more than 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. May holds a bachelor's degree in public affairs from the University of Oklahoma and a master's degree in international communication from the American University in Washington, D.C. 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.

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