Leadership on the Line: Marketing the Fire Service One Firefighter at a Time

Since I have been associated with Firehouse Magazine and Firehouse.com, I have sought to show how the discipline of marketing management can make a significant contribution to fire and emergency services. The central focus of marketing is to make sure that the communities we protect understand what we do, how we do it and why it is so important to their safety and that of our country. We protect our citizens' first right - life - so they can pursue the other two: liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We have tried to be very clear in discussions about marketing to draw the distinction between commercial marketing and public service marketing. Public service marketing is the kind that we use in the fire and rescue services. The significant difference revolves around profit and people. Fire departments do not make a profit, yet provide the highest quality service to the entire market, that is virtually everyone in the community.

The Human Element: Who We Are Defines the Fire Service

One thing that we do have in common with commercial marketing is the human element. This element contributes to the most important part of marketing; relationship management which is the DNA of marketing. The success of any business or the effectiveness of your department depends on how well each person understands and utilizes this one concept. It's not too difficult to understand that the most significant, critical difference between us and private enterprise marketing is the individual firefighter. While our effectiveness certainly depends on our professional skill and knowledge in emergencies, our ability to lead at all levels defines us. How we communicate our leadership will dictate the highest quality of our standards and how successfully we can adapt to change. This has everything to do with marketing. There are very few professions that require leadership the first day on the job. Firefighting comes very close.

This month's column seeks to define those qualities that make great firefighters and great leaders where it counts: on the line. I hope to include examples of many firefighters and line officers in my column over time. The first one I present here is one I know well.

Leading from the Heart: Calm, Courageous and Kind

Greg Ahearn, Lieutenant, 31-C Shift, Woodinville Fire and Life Safety District<

Two vivid memories come to me about Greg Ahearn. The first was that of his kind, pleasant face and welcoming spirit when I inquired about how to become a part of Woodinville Fire and Life Safety in 1990. He defined the department to me and I felt as though I had come home. Later, as fire commissioner, I found the truth of that statement: I was home for the next six years.

My next memory of Greg came from an emergency incident. It was a blustery night in the Pacific Northwest and my 16-year-old son, Nicholas, was out with his buddies. I had almost fallen asleep when I heard tires skidding on wet pavement and a violent crash very close to my house. I leaped out of bed, put on my commissioner's jacket and helmet, grabbed my flashlight and radio, and drove to the scene. I was praying that it wasn't Nicholas. There in a ravine down from the main road was a car overturned with a ruptured gas tank. I was the first person on the scene. I called in the alarm and leaped down the steep ravine to the car. Inside were two intoxicated and very seriously injured boys. I did my best to comfort and stabilize them while I waited for the engine companies. As the companies arrived I clawed my way up the side of the ravine. A yellow coated arm and gloved hand grabbed mine as I stumbled forward. As I looked up, there was Greg Ahearn with his sunny smile, "We've got it commissioner. Take a break."

Treat Your Customers the Way You Treat Your Family

I asked Greg Ahearn to be the first person I would feature in this series. The fact that it took me over six months for him to consider such exposure tells the story of his modesty. The comments and observations from his crew and the people in the community he serves offers a picture of the commensurate "servant leader" in the fire service. They are glowing beyond compare. Greg leads by example, gaining the respect from all around him. His approach is to empower his people working together, not just for him because he is their leader. "Treating our customers as you would treat your family members is high on my priority list" said Ahearn. My goal is to create our own culture here, leading by example as a crew and, hopefully, leaving our own Station 31 C-Shift legacy. In essence we are creating our own'31C' brand. I am always looking for opportunities to get my crew positive exposure to our internal and external customers. It's good for our department and good for the fire service."

It is important to remember that great firefighters deserve great leadership. While Greg is a great leader on the line, each member of Woodinville reflects the same principles. While each firefighter is different, no one is any less great than the others. Greg is an example of one among many.

Woodinville Fire and Life Safety District is located just north of Seattle protecting an area of 36 square miles with a population of approximately 50,000 people. It a junior taxing district which means that it is self-funding from public tax dollars, directed by a Board of Commissioners. It is a newly accredited department with approximately 100 of the brightest and kindest firefighters and officers one could meet. The department's Chief, Dennis Johnson, is committed to maintain the mission of the department: "Committed to Protecting Life and Property". The department's guiding principles give one an idea of how great firefighters can become great leaders, one firefighter at a time. Notice that the beginning of each principle is "each member:"

  • Each member will cultivate individual and organizational trust, pride and commitment.
  • Each member will be held to the same standard of ethics and behavior.
  • Each member understands that leadership is a privilege.
  • Each member's behavior will enhance the image and reputation of the department.
  • Each member will provide the best customer service to each of our customers.

Courage is Grace Under Pressure

"It's inspiring to watch," said inspector Greg Garat. "The more Lieutenant Ahearn goes out of his way to protect and serve his people, the more they go out of their way to do the same for him. By supporting the things that the crew as individuals and as a team wishes to do for the department, the crew supports the things that he as an officer wants to do. We do it to make 'Lou' proud."

From another crew member: "Although courage is typically recognized and associated with situations directly placing one's physical self in harms way, it is also indicative of one's ability to as address the issue of personnel problems in a manner that allows the retention of dignity. The growth of the individual is a fundamental gauge of good leadership. Greg's actions on the line have contributed to the respect his crew holds for him."

Greg became a firefighter in Woodinville in 1987 and was promoted to Lieutenant in 1993. He has been an engine company officer and is now assigned to a truck company working out of headquarters. He has received numerous awards over the years such as firefighter of the year and other leadership honors. He has contributed over 15 years of intense involvement to the Muscular Dystrophy Camp. He has called it a life changing experience, recruiting other firefighters to follow his example. His crew feels blessed to have him as their leader because he empowers them to lead in their own individual area. One of his crew told me that while he is an exceptional diplomat and "people person," he is the model of grace and calm on the fireground in the most chaotic conditions. At 40 years old, Greg is a family man married to his wife, Miriam, for 12 years and they have two children, Briana and Courtney, as well as two older step daughters, Kirstin and Lainey.

What Makes a Good Leader on the Line?

"What makes a good leader on the line in the fire service?" notes Woodinville Battalion Chief Tad Wineman. "It is the same thing that makes people successful in their daily lives. Ninety-nine percent of this job is getting along with those we work with and those people we serve. Show me someone who works well on a team, gets along with others, has fun with them and respects them and he will do well in the fire service. In all respects Greg excels. Does this mean he is just one of the guys? No. He is willing to make the hard decisions in the fire station and on emergency calls. Greg is fully engaged in the fire service, always trying to better himself in classes and training. One courageous example of Greg's generosity occurred after one of our members committed suicide. Greg, along with his family, opened their home to the surviving children, showing compassion and long-standing dedication to his co-worker and friend."

A Beacon of Light: Not a Finer Example of Leadership

Probably the best observation and comment I received about Greg came from the general manager of a retirement community where Greg's crew makes frequent runs. She noted that she could not imagine a finer example of leadership. "He has high expectations for his men and they achieve them every time. He leads by example with compassion and humor, and from my observation, he leads by the greatest of attributes: humility."

Finally, she noted, "Lieutenant Ahearn is well respected and known in the greater Woodinville community. If there is an event he is there. If there is a crisis he is there. If there is a need, he is there. In a world that could be considered to be in moral decline, Lieutenant Ahearn is a beacon of light: an example to all of us young and old. "Isn't this what the fire service must continue to represent in the minds of our citizens? This is marketing communications at its most effectiveness. I do not know a more fitting description to exemplify the fire service in any community through the leadership example of Lieutenant Greg Ahearn. Greg represents us all: a leader on the line."

I would like to thank Greg's crew: Battalion Chief Cliff Griffen; Firefighters Ron Suggs, Peter Briner, Jeff Smith, Ian D'Ambrosia and Kyle Felmley. I would also like to thank the following individuals for their contributions to the article: Chief Dennis Johnson, Rebecca Clark, David Leggett, Seth Merritt, Tad Wineman, Ted Klinkenberg and Wally Holstad

Suggest a "Leader on the Line" from Your Department

If you or your department would like to suggest a leader on the line for this column, e-mail me, at firecom1@aol.com with the name of the candidate and a contact. I will you and get the information for the story. Please keep your candidates to any rank from firefighter to battalion chief.

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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.