“Smoke Showing”: Marketing ICS

Question: The U.S. fire service has been on a public-image roller coaster since 9/11. FDNY and all of us endured the catastrophic results of that horrific day. Immediately thereafter, we thought that we had rightfully attained the public’s...


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Question:

Answer: This is the real issue in fire and emergency services marketing. How do we maintain a consistently positive image so that we can maintain our budgets to deal with all of the demands on our service? We can’t achieve this goal if there is a sense out there that there are too many of us and that we don’t need the money because the fire problem in the U.S. has diminished so much. We have not done a good enough job of demonstrating our many services to our markets, nor have we demonstrated that we still have a significant fire and fire death problem in the U.S.

Over the past few months, a number of well-placed articles about the fire service have appeared in the print media. Some of these are politically motivated and, hopefully, will have a short-term effect. Political articles can be invitations for a no-win contest. Among other points of contention, the idea that the fire service is on the verge of obsolescence seems to be a consistent theme in these articles.

Two such pieces appeared in The New York Times: an editorial defended the closing of firehouses in New York City and a column by Clyde Haberman focused on the negative behavior of a few firefighters on Staten Island. The conjecture was that the firefighters who got in trouble had too much time on their hands, implying that this is a result of a diminishing need for firefighters. The main reason for this excess time, the articles contends, is that we have been so successful in reducing the fire problem that there’s less for firefighters to do.

The thrust of an article in a right-wing think-tank magazine, American Enterprise (published by the American Enterprise Institute), by Eli Lehrer was that the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) is correct in supporting John Kerry for president because the fire service is on its way to obsolescence. The implication is that the Bush administration has given appropriate weight to the financial needs of the fire service by diminishing its financial support. Kerry wants to hire 100,000 new firefighters, in addition to making the FIRE Act more robust. As Lehrer noted, “America’s 291,650 professional firefighters want to keep their jobs; indeed, they will need all the help they can get: Despite the heroic image firefighters earned on 9/11, the profession is currently staring into the abyss of obsolescence. Nearly every major city has reduced its firefighting ranks in the last three years, and, while federal grants to fire departments will remain at nearly double the levels of 2002, the Bush administration has proposed a fiscal 2005 budget that would give firefighters less federal aid than they got in 2004. Firefighting cuts at the local and federal levels make good sense because professional firefighting has become almost boring. New building practices, technology, professional emergency management and exigencies of homeland security are sending firefighters the way of blacksmiths and slide rule manufacturers.”

We have seen these kinds of articles before and we will see them again. But there are important points to observe. First, these articles are from totally divergent sources, one liberal and one conservative, yet they say the same thing. The New York Times is a very influential liberal newspaper. The American Enterprise Institute, founded in 1943, possesses some fairly influential and noted academics, politicians and statesmen who happen to have a very conservative view of the world.

While politically motivated messages are usually taken with significant beakers of salt, the underlying meaning for us is to be vigilant and, in some cases, take immediate and decisive action. This is especially true when the facts don’t bear out the message. People have a way of believing these things, especially when they are presented in media many people trust.

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