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Question: With a heightened awareness of customer service as a necessary part of any fire department's interaction with the community, is there a designated position within the department dedicated to this specific function?
Answer: Yes, there is a need for such a position and some departments have established positions with this responsibility.
Over the past few months, we have been discussing the basic elements of the customer service function for fire and emergency services. We pointed to the ongoing 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 time of need. More and more, that care will involve prevention and education just as much as suppression and emergency medical 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.
Implementation of a customer care system in face-to-face situations involves two critical aspects. The first relates to departmental standard operating procedures (SOPs) 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.
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
When I first read Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini's Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service (FPP/IFSTA, 1996) nine years ago, I became fascinated with a model SOP he had placed in the appendix of his book. This SOP 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 structure fires and 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. 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.
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 may experience: