Fire Service Marketing Leadership

Each of us has a variety of roles in our lives. We are fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, business people and public servants, skilled technicians, career and volunteer firefighters, paramedics and EMTs. We can add to this list the variety of duties we perform within our fire departments and the responsibilities we have to each other and to our families.

Sometimes, in this fast-paced society, it is difficult for us to understand how other people, especially those with whom we associate every day, see us. But in our role as “firefighter,†people have an expectation of us. The difference between us and others in society is that we have taken an oath to protect the right of every citizen in our community to be safe and secure. This does not just mean knowing what to do when we respond to an emergency, but teaching our citizens what to do to take care of their families when we can’t be there.

As firefighters, we are watched by the public all of the time. We attract attention whether on a call or performing non-emergency duties that put us in the public eye. You know how you feel when you’re wearing your fire department uniform. You have pride in knowing that you represent the very best of the human condition. Think about how other people feel when they see you in that uniform. They expect what you project, so what would they think if they receive less than your uniform tells them to expect?

When you appear in uniform, our citizens know that you are going to take care of them. That is the promise of the brand “Fire Department.†You are that brand. You are always a firefighter. We must never take for granted the strength and value of that brand. Many generations of firefighters have created the strength of our brand. (I introduced this branding concept in my December 2003 column, “The Brand: Fire Department. The Brand Is Us, The Brand Is You.â€)

Managing The Brand

Among the various tactics and strategies in a fire department’s marketing toolbox, brand management is one of the most important. Managing the brand is making certain that the public perceives us in a way that is congruent with how we perform. In other words, do we keep our promises?

The public knows our brand through the symbol of the Maltese cross. When one considers the millions of brands in the world, the symbol of our service has one of the highest levels of recognition. Interbrand is a fairly new agency that measures the value, or “brand equity,†of the most popular brands. (Brand equity is the actual dollar value of a brand measured through a variety of indices.) Interbrand reports that among the top 10 brands in the world you will find those of Coca-Cola, Microsoft, IBM, Intel and my personal favorite, Disney (that’s where I work). There are millions of others but the public can retain only a few.

Brand equity is worth so much more than actual dollars. Sometimes it’s called “goodwill.†You will find it on an income statement, but it is very difficult to measure. Think of the millions of dollars that companies and even non-profit organizations spend annually to make certain that their brands stay in the public eye.

Our brand is in every community in the United States, and each of us represents it. Scott Bedberry, former vice president of marketing for Nike and Starbucks, noted in his recent book, A New Brand World, “A brand is a story the end of which has yet to be told.†The brand is all about the story, the actions and the people. It is the story of the heritage of our profession, how we perform our duties as firefighters and how we relate to the many people we serve. The continuing story is being written in our daily actions and communications of our accomplishments through the media and by word of mouth. This applies to us all of the time, not just when we are on duty. How we are known to the public determines the support we will continue to receive.

More and more today, one person can make a difference, not only with actions, but with the manner in which one communicates those actions. This communication begins with the first impression you make as a firefighter. I remember the first time I inquired about becoming a firefighter in Woodinville, WA, a suburb of Seattle. It has since grown considerably, and the fire department’s reputation as one of the best in the country has grown as well. I eventually became fire commissioner there.

First Impressions

On that first night, not knowing anyone, I was quite nervous about how I would be received. The first person I met was a firefighter named Greg Ahearn. I am not sure what I expected, but the manner in which he received me and the professionalism he displayed left an impression on me that set the tone for the entire department. Greg is now a lieutenant and a leader in the department with the respect and admiration of all who are fortunate enough to know him.

When I think of leadership on the line and all of the attributes of a model fire officer, I think of Greg. He is the kind of person I want protecting my family. Now, multiply that impression by the number of people in the department and you begin to see the effect we can have in the community. You also can see how the brand “Fire Department†carries that same perception throughout the community.

All of the marketing in the world cannot successfully convey a service or value that does not deliver on its promises. At the time I joined, Woodinville’s fire department was known as King County Fire District 36. The chief at that time, Jim Davis, knew the benefits of brand equity. He was well ahead of his time in his understanding of marketing management’s contribution to the fire service. Woodinville developed a new name: Woodinville Fire and Life Safety District. This simple change told the citizens of Woodinville that their fire department was responsible for all of their life safety needs. The department promised that every aspect of life safety would be in its hands, not just fire protection. That is called growing and managing brand equity. Fortunately, that department’s actions and the professionalism of its firefighters have continued to justify that promise.

While we do not have a national fire department, each of our 30,000-plus departments and our 1.6 million firefighters represent the perception of the brand “Fire Department†throughout the country. We rise and fall on the promises and actions of each of us. In that context, we are all individual leaders in our efforts to protect our citizens. It’s not as if our citizens can suddenly switch brands as in private enterprise. However, if we don’t deliver on our promises, they do have the choice to try something different. Don’t give them that choice. Protect our brand equity through your actions and promises in everything you say and do. The brand is “Fire Department,†the brand is you and you are all of us.

Ben May, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been developing the discipline of fire and emergency services marketing management for more than 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.