Within the last two months we have lost four firefighters in New York and Boston and our citizens watch the latest house fire on the television each night. Multiple fatality fires still happen weekly. This situation continues to occur in most cities and towns.
Should we accept that "this is just the way it is" in the United States? We are a big country, right? We have fires, accidental and, in some cases, intentional. This is life in the USA. This scenario plays out in most communities in our country. Guess what? This cannot continue to be the norm. But it will continue until there is a paradigm shift in the way that we view fire protection. It is a very large task, but the time has come to act.
As Stefan Svensson of the Swedish Fire Service noted at Fire Rescue International a couple of weeks ago, part of the problem is how U.S. firefighters see themselves and their role in the protection of their communities. This also relates to how we define the word hero in our society, how we see our mission and, most important, how we execute that mission in the community we protect.
It can be a humbling experience to admit that we do not have all of the answers to the fire problem, especially when we are the fire service. Remember, we're supposed to know what to do so we can protect our citizens and our firefighters. We all agree that suppression is a necessary part of community fire protection. In fact, the U.S. fire service originated in just this way. But as we progress into the 21st century it can no longer be acceptable to incur the losses that continue to plague our country.
Comprehensive fire prevention is the best strategy to attack the problem at both the national and local level - in every community. Comprehensive fire prevention means education, engineering, inspection, enforcement and public service marketing. This will mean that the definition of hero will involve prevention and education first and suppression as a last resort.
Within the last few years the United Kingdom (UK) has undertaken a paradigm shift in its approach to fire protection. This shift involved a national strategic agenda that embraced prevention with a focus on those communities at risk as well as those less threatened. This strategy resembles community policing in which single firehouses and engine companies developed relationships block by block to understand the needs of the households in their jurisdiction.
This kind of focus required a reorientation of the firefighters workload as well as the use of household information and data to understand the threats to each family in the neighborhood. This change of focus gave the engine companies the time to deal with those factors contributing to their citizens' understanding of the potential threat from fire uniquely suited to the community or block.
From a marketing perspective, comprehensive fire prevention is the most important emerging opportunity for any department to gain visibility among the citizens, institutions and businesses it protects. The great opportunity prevention provides is that the department can actually achieve one of the primary functions of its mission - stopping fires and accidents before they occur - through the marketing mechanism, and to the most people. And we can do this before our citizens lives are threatened as well as those of our firefighters!
The first question the leaders of our communities ask when a firefighter dies is "what went wrong?" "Why did we send our firefighters in harm's way when there was nobody in the building?" It is only natural to jump in and save lives in danger. It is part of our mission. But it is the last part of the mission.
The first part of the mission is to prevent the situation from occurring in the first place. So the best time to be proactive in reaching the most people is when we can deliver our messages to large amounts of people or to individual business owners in a setting, where they are conducive to receiving our message, and in seeing us as the keeper of the safety toolbox. Each is dependent on the other. This is the crux of effective public service marketing.
On the one hand, the reason this opportunity has emerged deals with the changing nature of our communities, the proliferation of information and the communication mechanisms, which make it more readily available. On the other hand, marketing has been associated with prevention and safety education since these programs began. This kind of marketing is called "social marketing" because it is aimed at changing behavior.
We now have the chance to modify behavior at the household level thanks to modern technology. Once we have a picture of each community's key threats, we will then need the people to deliver the education one block and household at a time. It is possible and we can do it. Our citizens' lives depend on it. Our firefighters' lives depend on it!
One small sign that there may be a shift in thinking. Firehouse.com featured two front page stories on prevention within the same week. The first article, about the view of the Swedish Fire Service was the most e-mailed article for the week when it appeared. The second article, Virginia, Oklahoma Fire Officials Push 'Village 'Model explained a model that is the exact one successfully executed in the UK, specifically by the Merseyside Fire Brigade headed by Chief Tony McGuirk. The model focuses on the local fire station as an integral part of the community relationship to manage the fire and community "guardianship" by customizing the approach to each local neighborhood in their jurisdiction.
- From Sweden, a Critical View of U.S. Firefighters
- Audio: Village Fire Department
- Virginia, Oklahoma Fire Officials Push 'Village' Model
- Podcast: Six Days, Six Fires, 19 Children and 9 Adults Killed
Ben May, a Firehouse.Com and Firehouse Magazine 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.
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.
He is a member of the National Society of Executive Fire Officers, the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, The Institution of Fire Engineers, the Florida Fire Chiefs Association and the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes.