In summary, the fire service enjoys great prestige, and individual firefighters are the face of the fire service. The public has perceptions and biases about the fire service based upon many touch points. Some of these touch points are superficial, such as a person who drives by a fire station every day, and some are deep, such as a person who has experienced a fire or had a firefighter respond to some other emergency in their life. Maintaining a constant, positive face is vital to the well being of individual departments and the collective fire service. Being the face of the fire service is an awesome responsibility, and offers many opportunities for the fire service to advance. All firefighters have common roles to promote the face of the fire service, and other roles are conferred by rank or position.
Publicizing the Brand
The public, and this includes the press, has responsibility talking about the brand to others. But what they say is up to you, the firefighter. Are they going to have good things to say, or are they going to have bad things to say. And which type of news lasts longer in the public consciousness, the good news, or the bad news? Think about how a newspaper handles an error. The error may be on the front page, but the correction is buried in some small corner of page 12. It seems to be human nature to remember the bad stuff and forget the good stuff. So what does this mean for a fire department and its brand? It means that the fire department must constantly reinforce the brand in the community with excellent service and a professional image. To a consumer, a brand suggests the best of class, the best choice, a quality product, so it is important that the fire department actively publicize the brand and increase the perceived value of the brand and the fire department.
There are many ways to publicize the brand, and these include the value added services discussed earlier and maintaining a polished and positive image. Another way to publicize the brand is telling the public what we do and why. As an example, my department provides non-transport ALS first responder service using fire engines. I speak to many local groups, such as Kiwanis and Rotary, and at these and other meetings I am always asked, "Why do you send the fire truck when I called 911 and asked for an ambulance?" This gives me the opportunity to explain how our first responder service works and to talk about the personnel, training, equipment, and method my department uses to have a paramedic at the patient's side in five minutes or less 90 percent of the time and compare this to the response time of the ambulance service. A fire department should actively seek opportunities to talk to the public and the business community about the services it provides with emphasis on quality of the service and being prepared to serve.
A fire department should develop a good working relationship with the press. If a fire department has a public information officer, the PIO should seek opportunities to promote the department in the press. An example of a proactive media relation effort includes a media day where the media gets to don turnouts and SCBA and fight fire and perform other firefighting tasks. Other examples include inviting the media for a ride-along and, depending upon call volume and community demographics, issuing daily or weekly press releases about fire department activities.
A department should develop community advocates who then go out in the community and talk about and promote the fire department. Methods of doing this include citizen fire academies and holding open houses at the fire stations. Fire Corps, part of the Department of Homeland Security Citizen Corp, is a great way to involve the community in the fire department and recruit volunteer members who are willing to assist the department in non-fire suppression activities such as public education, developing the fire department web site, assisting with incident reporting, providing canteen/rehab services at incidents, or helping to write grants. A department may be lucky enough to find a marketing/advertising person who can help develop and promote the department and the brand. The Harris poll shows that the public holds firefighters in high regard, so invite them into the department to meet the people that protect them, to become department promoters, and possibly become part of the department.
Finally, a fire department should develop a marketing plan. Formal marketing plans provide a roadmap for a department to develop and implement programs that offer value added services to the community and promote the department in the community. Lawrence Nisbet, in his Executive Fire Officer research project, discovered that over 89 percent of fire departments surveyed did not have a marketing plan, and that 75 percent of the departments that did not have a marketing plan did not plan to address the department's marketing needs. A department without a marketing plan is missing the opportunity to promote the brand and develop community advocates.