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

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...


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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.