With the heightened awareness of customer service as a necessary part of any fire department's interaction with the community, some departments have designated a position within the department dedicated to all aspects of concern for those citizens involved in any kind of incident. Some departments have an established incident command system function to assist the citizen or business during the incident.
When we discuss the basic elements of the customer service function for fire and emergency services, we are always aware of the on-going need for a customer service function in emergency and non-emergency situations. Virtually every aspect of our profession revolves around the desire to render care to our citizens in their time of need.
More and more that care will involve prevention and education just as much as suppression and emergency service. This is especially true as we take on more responsibility for disaster preparedness and some aspects of health care. From a marketing viewpoint this is a very good thing for the fire service. It expands our involvement in the care of the community so that we can grow and maintain our services. This gives us consistent opportunities for the community to see us in our service role, giving us more visibility for political and financial support.Discuss: Fire Service Marketing In The Public Information & Media Relations Forums on Firehouse.com
Implementation of a customer care system in face-to-face situations involves two critical aspects. The first relates to departmental standard operating procedures for all personnel in emergency and non-emergency situations. The second aspect speaks to the need for personnel to be assigned to customer care as a permanent departmental role especially in a larger department.
Regardless, and in a department of any size, it is important to have a system that assigns line or non-emergency personnel to a customer care role in any encounter with the public. This is especially true for prevention. First, there is the need to explain code and inspection necessities to businesses. Second, the prevention interaction with business is on-going and, therefore, involves the need to grow and maintain a relationship that is positive as it revolves around an interactive, problem-solving approach instead of an enforcement mentality. You will especially find a receptive audience from the business community. This market segment understands that good, responsive customer service contributes to business growth.
Responsibilities of Customer Care at the Scene: SOP
When I first read Alan Brunacini's Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service (Fire Protection Publications) nine years ago, I became fascinated with a model standard operating procedure he had placed in the appendix of his book. This standard operating procedure was for a sector of the incident command system called Occupant Services Sector. The concept is brilliant.
I would like to paraphrase it, contributing my own observations and additional ideas. The incident commander establishes the sector at all working structures fires and at any incident where command identifies the need. This may be EMS, special operations or hazmat. The purpose is to extend the service of the department, establishing a liaison - a relationship - between the fire department and the citizens who are involved in or affected by the incident.
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Command may find the need to request additional resources as fitting the situation. This may involve additional engine or ladder companies, or separate vehicles outfitted with tools and equipment to stabilize the situation. The focus of this extended service is on the customer who is experiencing the incident. This kind of service may be required well beyond the end of the actual emergency incident requiring the assignment of staff personnel.
Chief Brunacini's occupant services sector has the critical responsibility of customer care: a customer care officer for the incident. The SOP points out some of the key responsibilities for good, empathetic customer care, critical for the most difficult and traumatic day a citizen or community my experience.
- Incident Explanation. Explain the nature of the incident to the occupant, what the department is doing to stabilize the situation and why and how long this will take.
- Critical Information. Gather any significant information from the occupant regarding the structure and contents that could assist tactically with the operation. Identify the critical assets - valuables - that may have sentimental or personal value to the occupant. Deliver this information to the loss control officer early in the incident. Assist the customer in acquiring any medicines that might be lost at the incident.
- Communications Access. Provide the customer with communication access. In the case of a business, assist in providing a necessary communications liaison to help maintain the business as soon as possible. This may involve temporary use of a phone bank or coordinating with business recovery services.
- Temporary Housing. Act as liaison to arrange for any necessary accommodations of evacuees of a home or business.
- Customer Evacuation Site. Communicate the location where evacuees have been sent, making certain that this information is sent on to the investigations sector.
- Mental Health Needs. Identify any mental health needs of the customer(s) as well as any spectators or evacuees. Contact the necessary agency and escort the customer(s) to the mental health professionals at the scene. This includes incident debriefing and mental health needs for firefighters. Contact the department chaplain and direct to assist if necessary.
- Notification of Relief Agencies. Notify any necessary relief agencies, such as the Red Cross or Salvation Army.
- Coordination with Law Enforcement. Coordinate with police agencies to provide traffic control and security needs.
- Customer Agency Notification. Notify any other agencies or key individuals as designated by the customer. Assist customer in notifying insurance agents, security services and restoration companies.
- Coordinate Salvage Efforts. Provide coordination of salvage efforts with the loss control officer.
- Utilities Coordination. Act as coordinator with the loss control officer to restore utilities such as power, gas and water.
- Transportation. Provide use of service vans as necessary. Provide transportation for the customer to any location, as the customer deems critical.
- Shelter. Coordinate with necessary agencies to provide shelter for the customer(s) in a single location as soon as possible.
- Walk-Through. Where and when it is safe to do so, and after approval from investigations sector, coordinate a walk-through of the structure with the responsible parties.
- Site Security. Coordinate site security to include fire watch, private security firm, necessary insurance services and/or any other necessary agencies as the customer designates.
- Incident Explanation. Hand out and explain the booklet: After the Fire. Arrange for any presentations and explanations to the customer or neighborhood residents at the incident site. This may occur some time after the incident, long after salvage and site stabilization.
- Spectator and Witness Liaison. Responsibility for addressing any concerns and issues of witnesses at the scene who may question fire department actions involved in the incident. The customer care officer has the responsibility of minimizing misunderstandings with the public for improved relations. Concerns should be addressed at the incident if possible, but especially soon after the incident as necessary.
Many departments have now established separate units responsible for customer care as a part of their Community Services Division. The Oklahoma City Fire Department established a Community Services Liaison section within the Operations Division. In a conversation with Chief David Landsberger a couple of years ago, he noted to me that OKCFD established the division in 1998 with two officers per shift. The responsibilities of the position include all of those dealing with the care and welfare of citizens during and after an incident. There is not a specific sector at the scene, but these customer care officers go code red to any incident where they are needed. After the incident, these officers check back with the citizens or business owners involved in the incident the next day, the next week and even six months after the incident.
As the fire service continues to expand its services and community outreach departments many departments are establishing Community Liaison positions to handle a myriad of issues including recruiting minorities and marketing. Personnel in these positions can certainly come from within the fire service as an outgrowth of experienced positions in public information, education or prevention. They may also come from outside the uniform ranks among people who love the fire service but have a different set of skills to contribute such as marketing or relationship management.
The Future of Customer Service and Customer Care: Fire Corps
The role of customer service will also expand as we continue to expand our services to the public. This role will provide the kind of empathetic concern and communications that every human requires from an agency with a mission like ours. The fact is that as our society becomes more complex, fast-paced and alienated, the need for understanding and care has never been greater. Seen in this light, the opportunities for us to serve and explain what we do have never been better. The question is who is going to do this kind of work? Chief Landsberger noted that the OKCFD Citizens' Academy might be another source of non-uniformed support in this area if needed in the future.
The emergence of Fire Corps may provide another partial answer. The purpose of Fire Corps is to provide volunteer non-emergency services to departments in the areas of marketing, finance, public relations, graphic design, accounting and secretarial staff services. Customer care could be one of these categories. There are many people with professional backgrounds in these areas just waiting for an opportunity to contribute to the fire service.
A departmental training program addressing customer service for Fire Corps members could place them in positions to support and augment the role of line customer care officers. The result could be a significant contribution to the community as it widens the department's positive image in the community.
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.