Building on Traditions From the Ground Up

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.

Gary was able to purchase two 2004 Kenworth/Pierce Contender pumpers, one being designated as a rescue squad. He was also able to purchase a brush pumper, nozzles, a vehicle extrication tool, new self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and full sets of turnout gear and new uniforms to instill pride in the department. He received the funding from FIRE Act grants as well as money given to him from the general budget. He now has a full-time inspector as part of the enhanced capabilities for the department. Montverde can now provide mutual aid to the surrounding communities and the department is running many more calls (374 in 2004), especially to building fires, motor vehicle accidents and medical emergencies. The breakdown is 40% EMS and 60% all other, with a significant amount of fires. This does not mean that there are more fires in his jurisdiction; it simply means that Montverde is now a full-service department, contributing to the entire region, thus lessening the burden for the entire community. His customer base has now grown from 1,000 to 5,000 in a 60-square-mile area. Simply stated, the “ROI” (return on investment) for Montverde is moving in the right direction.

Keeping Your Promises

The fire department is under the supervision of the Montverde Town Council, specifically the Public Safety Committee. Gary was able to make his case – a key capability in marketing public services – to the committee for the growth and expansion of the department. Probably one of the toughest jobs Gary has had in achieving departmental goals is to bring some of the traditionalists along the way. But the proof has been in the results.

Gary believes that marketing management has made a major contribution to the growth of the department. He began by making certain the department was the bulwark of any special event in town. He developed an annual parade, consistent articles in the Lake County Section of the Orlando Sentinel newspaper and flyers to the local schools to get the word to parents, especially to drive home fire prevention messages. He created a special event when the new apparatus arrived: inviting the entire community to a traditional “wetdown.”

As usual, the internal marketing was critical to the development of his plans, and it was the most difficult. It is very important to understand that marketing is not simply convincing the public or those in the department that certain goals and actions are in their best interest. It is stating the promises and then keeping your promises. As Gary noted to me, “Tell your customers clearly what you are going to do, then do it, and keep them informed as you do it.”

The proof of the Montverde plan appeared in January, when a fire broke out in a 100-year-old home with no insurance. Luckily, the residents were not home when the house became involved in the middle of the day. Both Montverde apparatus were on the scene within minutes and the fire was knocked down in 20 minutes, held to the wall in which it started.

The specifics from Gary are as follows: “The culmination of all this work to build and refine this diamond-in-the-rough fire department came to fruition just last month. At 3:45 in the afternoon on a Thursday, we were dispatched to a structure fire in town. We were on scene within three minutes from the tones, smoke showing through the roof, entered the building with the thermal imaging camera, identified the location of the fire in the wall and used a total of about 100 gallons of water to extinguish the flames, once the wall was pulled. We had nine firefighters from our department alone there in less than eight minutes. This house was built over 100 years ago, made of heavy timber construction, and as you can imagine was dry as a bone. The house was not occupied at the time of alarm, and the homeowners had no insurance. Had this fire occurred just a few years ago, there is no doubt that the outcome would have been far more devastating. This is what any fire department should be about...minimizing the loss of life and property. We learn each and every day, and we strive to get better and better as we learn. Like I said, ‘Marketing is keeping your promises.’ ”

Gary cautions that this is not a popularity contest and that choices must be made, the most important one being the decision to become a full-service department in a community poised for growth. Gary has definitely been doing that. He is now into his third year of a five-year strategic plan he developed last year! Gary’s parting thought to me was in praise of the customers and volunteers of Montverde: “At the end of the day, there would be no success without the volunteers, the men and women who have put their lives on hold to take the classes needed to do the job, who answer the calls night and day, and the townspeople, who have stood up in the face of tradition and old habits, who have supported all that we have done, deserve the credit for making this fire department a success.”

Share Your Story

The Montverde Fire Department is no different than thousands of others. If it can be done once, it can be done again and again. Most fire departments have many of the same problems. If you would like to share your department’s story, especially its challenges and successes, send me by e-mail at firecom1@aol.com. You don’t have to send me the story, just let me know that you want to tell it. I will get in touch with you and we will tell it together the same way we have done here. In this way we help each other and the entire fire service.

Readers who would like to contact Chief Schindele for more details may reach him by e-mail at MFDStation74@aol.com.

MONTVERDE FIRE DEPARTMENT

OUR MISSION AND VALUES
Committed to the Care and Protection Of the Community We Serve

In pursuit of our mission, we believe the following statements are timeless and essential:

  • We recognize and affirm the unique and intrinsic worth of each volunteer
  • We will strive to train and equip each volunteer to the highest standard available to us
  • We will treat all those we serve with compassion and kindness
  • We act with absolute honesty, integrity and fairness in the way we conduct our business and the way we live our lives
  • We will maintain the highest standard in safety and service
  • We trust our colleagues as valuable members of our fire and life safety team, and pledge to treat one another with loyalty, respect and dignity

Ben May, a Firehouse® 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.

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