Fire Department Brand Equity: You are Us!

Each of us has a different role in the way we lead our lives today. 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 many different duties we perform within our departments and the other responsibilities we have to each other and to our families. Sometimes in this fast-paced society it is difficult for us to understand how we even see ourselves, let alone the people with whom we associate everyday.

But in our role as firefighters people have an expectation. The difference between us and the rest of society is that we have taken an oath to protect the first right of every citizen in our community: the right 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. My wife always tells me, "Ben, they are watching you."

As firefighters, the public is watching us 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 in that uniform. You have pride in knowing you represent the very best of the human condition. Think about how other people feel when they see you in it. They expect what you project. What should they think when they receive less than your badge, uniform and department tell them? When you appear our citizens know that you are going to take care of them. That is the promise of the fire department brand. You are that brand. You are always a firefighter. We must never take for granted the strength and value of the fire department brand. Many generations of firefighters living and those who have passed have created the strength of our brand.

Managing The Brand and Keeping Our Promises

Among the various tactics and strategies in the marketing ICS 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 in our society. 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. Among the top 10 brands in the world you will find those of Coca Cola, Microsoft, IBM, Intel and my personal favorite; Disney. There are millions of others, but the public can only retain 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 brand is in the public eye.

Our brand is in every town 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. Each of us represents the entire fire service, not just our own departments. This all begins with you and your place in the fire service and in the community.

The First Impression: Lt. Greg Ahearn, Woodinville Fire and Life Safety District

More and more today, one person can make a difference, not only with actions, but with the manner in which we communicate 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 the town of Woodinville, WA. Woodinville is a suburb just outside Seattle. It has since grown considerably, and its reputation as one of the best departments in the country has grown as well. I eventually became fire commissioner there.

But that first night not knowing anyone, I was quite nervous about how I would be received. The first person I saw 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. Lieutenant Ahearn is now 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. That is the kind of person I would want protecting my family.

Now multiply that impression times the number of people in the department and you begin to see the effect in the community. You also can see how the fire department brand 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 promise.

Woodinville was known at that time as King County Fire District 34. 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. They made the promise that every aspect of life safety would be in the department's hands, not just fire protection. That is called growing and managing brand equity. They literally cornered the market. Fortunately that department's actions and professionalism among its fire fighters have continued to justify its promise.

While we do not have a national fire department, each of our 36,000 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. Remember to protect our brand equity through your actions and promises in everything you say and do because "they are watching you," the brand fire department is you, and you are us.

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