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Question: How can a small-town volunteer fire department use marketing tools to grow as it meets the changing needs of its community?
Answer: Eighty-five percent of all fire departments in the United States are volunteer and in small towns. The ability of a small department to grow is at the center of the crisis in the volunteer fire service. If a small department can understand and use the available tools in the marketing process successfully, it can solve many of the problems it perceives to be insurmountable. Here is a story of one of those departments.
I recently received an e-mail from Battalion Chief Gary Schindele of the Montverde, FL, Fire Department. He was responding to a story I told in my column and noted from my contact information that I must be close to his jurisdiction. In fact, I live just a few miles from the Montverde Fire Department, a one-building department located in the sprawling suburbs west of Orlando. What I did not know is that I had struck gold in uncovering a story of how a tiny department with strong leadership and an understanding of the marketing process could grow so quickly in services so that it could make a significant impact in its community.
Founded in 1934, the Montverde Fire Department served over 1,000 citizens of the community for many years as a very traditional fire department providing basic fire protection. In 2002, Gary Schindele and his family moved into town. Gary went to the firehouse even before he built his own home. Originally from Connecticut, Gary was raised with a belief that giving to the community is one of the highest callings a citizen can possess. He started out as a member of the Stamford, CT, Ambulance Corps. An executive who designs emergency room facilities for hospitals, Gary had been in volunteer fire and emergency services for over 30 years when he and his family moved from Osceola County, FL, where he was assistant chief of the Campbell City Volunteer Fire Department – “The volunteer fire service is cheaper than therapy,” he told me.
When Gary arrived on the scene in Montverde, he asked to become a part of a department that was ready to move up a few notches in becoming an even more vital part of the community. The initial goal was to increase the array of services for the citizens it protects. While Gary is a very “can-do” type of fire officer, he wanted to build on the department’s foundations. As he noted to me, “We could not grow the department to our present status if we had not respected the past and the traditions on which the department was created.” Gary found plenty of tradition when he arrived. The only piece of apparatus that the department possessed was a 1956 Ford/Seagrave pumper. That was the only piece in service until 1991, when the department purchased a 1974 Ward LaFrance pumper and a 1984 brush truck.
It has been said that “the fire service represents 350 years of tradition unimpeded by progress.” While the traditions of our past many times give us the basis on which to build our future, we do need to take the bull by the horns and pick up the hammer and nails so we can build that future. One of the reasons Gary contacted me was that he wanted to tell me that the marketing process was one of the most productive tools that propelled his department forward in the service of the citizens of Montverde as well as the surrounding communities.
Building from the Ground Up
So here was Gary Schindele with a one-building department housing old apparatus, a handful of volunteers, a dismal ISO rating and a whopping 35 calls a year.
Gary developed an aggressive strategic plan, which really looks more like a marketing action plan. First, he had to have resources: manpower, equipment and apparatus. He began recruiting volunteers. He achieved this through word of mouth as well as placing posters in stores and public places. He now has 24 firefighters. He immediately began recruit classes for Firefighter First Responder and Firefighter I. Once completed, he enrolled his recruits in EMT classes. He has moved his team up quickly, developing his most outstanding volunteers into shift commanders. In this manner, they began to acquire management experience.