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Why Do We Still Have Such a Severe Fire Problem in This Country?
Working for the Walt Disney Company gives one a vantage point to observe how great organizations operate. I do not just mean Disney with its customer-oriented approach to the market, but other companies and organizations that work with us - and to see how some of these lessons may apply to the fire service. Among the lessons I have learned is the need for consistency in marketing. It is a key sign of leadership. It is the same for a vital public service. Another lesson is that the success of any organization is defined by its ability to fulfill its core mission. If that is true, then why do we continue to have such a severe fire problem in this country? This is a real issue.
With these two ideas in mind, here is a review of key principles that should define marketing leadership for the fire service in the United States. Marketing leadership means delivering on our promises. Isn't it the same for the measure of organizational and individual leadership?
Marketing is exchange for mutual gain. In the case of the fire service, the public gains protection, prevention and life-safety support from the emergency services. The fire service gains tax dollars for delivery of the services. Fire and emergency services marketing ensures that all services are delivered at the right time, to the people who need them, in a way that meets the needs of each citizen and reduces the risk to the whole community. Critically, it places the community at the heart of the design and delivery processes. Successful marketing is inversely proportional to the need to sell. When you have to push hard to sell your department, it is generally too late to worry about marketing.
Marketing is involved with all aspects of fulfilling people's needs: a moving target at best. At the basic delivery level, it is very much influenced by the changing operating environment and evolving citizen and firefighter expectations. At other levels, how we perform the service influences how the public perceives the value of the service. This has major implications on our "positioning" in the eyes of the public and the public's support for the service.
Marketing defines the promises to our citizens, elected officials, businesses and institutions, local organizations, patients, ancillary departments such as police, highway patrol, utility and water departments, the Red Cross, the media in particular and other county, state and federal agencies with which we work. Most significantly, marketing defines the promises we keep to each other, especially to our firefighters and officers. This is internal marketing.
Marketing's effectiveness externally depends on the success of internal marketing. If the firefighters sense that there is lack of trust and care for their concerns, then any marketing plan will fail. This is a morale and loyalty issue, and it is as vital as the life and mission of the department. Simply stated, marketing maintains the balance between that mission and the needs of the citizens we serve. The goal of good fire and life-safety marketing is to position the organization with a positive public perception. Successful marketing for the fire service organization harmonizes the needs of the market with the fire department's purpose, to fulfill its mission for the public while perpetuating its existence.
Today, we are faced with issues as varied as each jurisdiction. But the basic challenges boil down to lack of resources (equipment, communications and apparatus, and housing) as well as political support at the national, state and local levels; retention of present firefighters and recruitment of new firefighters. We face increased service demands as well as increased levels of necessary training. We see major demographic shifts: an aging population as well as growing cultural diversity. Add to this, forces of change from time constraints on the family to information proliferation and citizen sophistication. Most important among all of these issues is the will and courage to lead the fire service to fulfill its mission.
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.