Marketing ICS: Leading the Fire Service into the Future

The qualities of effective organizational leadership are always difficult to pin down. This is no different for a small business, a global enterprise, or, in our case, a fire department and the many non-profit organizations that represent the fire service. In the final analysis the ability of the fire service to change and adapt to its circumstances while balancing its own culture will determine its destiny and its effectiveness.

The difference between the fire service and others is that its effectiveness directly affects the safety of our citizens and their property in cities and towns across the nation. One of the first rules of marketing management is that its effectiveness is based on an outside-in view of the world and not inside-out. If we truly want to understand what we should be doing to be more effective for the communities we protect, then we need to understand their changing safety needs instead of assuming that we know all of them already.

Most organizations do see the world through their own eyes and it's not surprising. This is just human nature. This assumption is based on a myopic view that the world revolves around their organizations needs and goals.

In my experience, I have found this to be especially true in the fire service. This is not surprising. It is a competitive occupation and it is difficult to become a firefighter. Most people in the fire service have been in it for many years because they love it so much. It is still unusual to find someone in a leadership position in a fire department or a fire service organization who has come in through private enterprise or some other profession instead of through the ranks.

So it is especially difficult to see things in a totally different way when one has been inside the fire service culture for many years, surrounded by many with the same view. Fortunately, most firefighters and officers are inquisitive and intelligent, always seeking ways to improve and learn from their experiences. Many seek advanced degrees beyond the Executive Fire Officer program of the National Fire Academy. This is all to the good of the fire service, but still, largely, "within the fire service."

Become a Learning Organization

It takes some practice to see the world in other ways, learning from the experiences of others and, most important, from the market itself. Even a tiny amount of research into the needs of the market can yield significant results for organizational effectiveness. It is true that any fire service organization or fire department must have clear priorities and objectives to accomplish their basic mission.

However, we are all in service to our customers and our members. There is a delicate balance between what we need to achieve to achieve for the organization's sustainability and our customers' growing safety needs. Critically important are the changing needs of the members of the organization because those members will directly impact how effective we are with our citizens.

Henry Ford once said that if he had asked his customers what they needed, they would have said, "a faster horse." While we can't expect our customers to understand all of the complexities of fire protection, we can respect their intelligence and the desire to remain safe. Knowledgeable citizens will always be our most supportive customers. It's the best job security in the world and it's based on sound economic principles. This is true for two reasons: First, they will have an understanding of safe behaviors before and during an emergency. This means education for prevention. Second, they will have a better understanding of how the fire service protects them during and after the emergency. This is education for financial and political support. The more they know about what they should do and what we do, the greater the chances they will support us so that we can remain firefighters.

Trends to Watch

Ed Comeau, editor of Campus Firewatch and the U.S. Fire Administration has been tracking a disturbing trend over the past four months. There appears to be an increase in multiple-fatality fires across the country.

While this could just be an anomaly, it points to two population factors that are going to impact the fire service directly and every department in the nation. High school and college kids are entering society, many without the knowledge of fire safety education. The last thing they may have remembered was "stop, drop and roll" when they were in elementary school. Remember when you were between the ages of 14 and 24? You probably thought you were somewhere between Batman and Superman on the invincibility scale. So these population groups understand things in a different way than when they were in grade school. When one considers the upsetting trend in high school and college age drinking, the combination is not a pretty picture for safe behaviors in the future.

The second big trend is the retirement of the baby boomers. This group will become more of a risk by the sheer force of their numbers. When one considers the impact of just these two factors coupled with all of the emergency services we provide, it is easy to see that the present fire and emergency services system could become overwhelmed. This is more critical for us in the U.S., than, for example in the United Kingdom or Japan. Both of those countries have emphasized comprehensive prevention for some time, and they have the results to prove it. We, on the other hand, have a suppression-based service.

Regardless of the progression of the two population trends, we are going to need a strong and consistent emphasis on prevention and public fire education to control our labor and costs of suppression within the limits our citizens will support. The next time you want to ask for the funding for a public educator, use this financial argument. It may help. We, in particular, see the same trend in health prevention vs. the overtaxing of our nations emergency rooms because we spend a lot of time there ourselves.

An Educated Citizen is Our Most Important Asset

So what does all of this mean in terms of our future goals? It will require a cultural shift from fire service leaders. The phrase, "300 years of tradition unimpeded by progress", never really did apply to the best of us. It can never apply to any of us again.

In order to fulfill the on-going, progressive mission of the fire service in light of present and future trends the fire service - each department - must evolve into even more of a full service fire and emergency services protection agency. One of the more effective aspects of this change will be much more of an emphasis on citizen education. We are fortunate that we have, in our country, a small but mighty group of dedicated and ingenious public fire educators. We need to recruit more educators and give them the training and support to do the job. This means making the role of educator a destination position for those who desire it. We should direct our recruitment to minorities in communities where the population dictates it.

We should make a concerted effort to study in detail the British and Japanese models of success, applying what works to our own cases. In particular, Chief Tony McGuirk, of the Merseyside Fire Brigade as drastically reduced the fire, death and injury rate through the application of marketing and education to this very large jurisdiction just outside Liverpool, England. We can also look to our own backyards for best practices from around the country.

We can rise to the challenges these trends portend, but it will require courageous leadership, organizational effectiveness and an effective, comprehensive marketing plan to achieve the success our citizens and fire fighters deserve. Another term come to mind: "lead or follow, but get out of the way." Our future and the safety of our citizens depend on it.


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.

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