“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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So what do these signals portend for us? Think about it this way. Your engine is first due on a call for “light smoke showing.” The caller states it appears that brown smoke is emanating from a window in a large building. Your station is about a mile from the building. As you pull out of the bay, you see light smoke looming up over the horizon. Nearing the scene, you see the light brown smoke turning to black as it pulsates out of the three windows on the first floor of the building. You radio headquarters for a second alarm, noting that if you don’t move quickly you will have to deal with “all hands.”

As a marketing professional dedicated to the fire service, it is always important to watch the horizon for that “loom up.” When you see it, you need to think about “Marketing ICS” to keep that dragon in its cave. Marketing ICS means we need an action plan. This problem is only going to become worse, unless and until the national agenda adds more strength to the fire and emergency services.

Even if the national agenda changes for the better on our behalf, we still need a comprehensive marketing action plan (ICS) that addresses these contingencies once and for all. This means the involvement of every significant agency and enterprise (government, political and corporate) that has a stake in the perpetuation of a healthy (well-funded) fire service.

Sometimes, even our best efforts at marketing management and planning are not enough in the face of rapidly changing market conditions. We can always chastise ourselves for not having a consistent message at all of the right places at the right times. But, fire departments are not marketing agencies, they are multi-service emergency providers. Sometimes, preventative measures only go so far.

Here is an outline for an action plan any department can implement immediately. It is made up of only five “sectors”: relationships, facts, media, message and proximity.

  • Relationships. Relationships are the DNA of the system. Assign the right person at the appropriate influential level to make the department’s case, from the chief to firefighter. Key support relationships are citizens, administrators, politicians, institutions, organizations, corporations and the media.

  • Message. Message is the heart of the system. The message defines the direction of the facts. This is the time to make the case. A decision is made about what the department will say to deal with the issue. The message should be clear, unified and consistent.

  • Facts. Facts are the nuts and bolts of the system. They back up the message. Deal with each disputed point by presenting iron-clad facts. As an example, to refute the point about obsolescence in the Lehrer article, we would note that the fire service is the first-line responder to all emergency incidents, including fires. Call rates of all types of emergencies are increasing – and this does not even begin to tackle the consistent need for new kinds of training to handle the terrorism threat. We do still have fires: 1.7 million last year. These facts should be presented in a format that is well understood, clear and indisputable.

  • Media. Media are the delivery vehicles for the facts in the message. Most fire-rescue service public information officers (PIOs) have excellent relationships with the media. Immediately contact your sources and have the highest-ranking officer deliver your messages with the PIO to all chosen sources – TV, the Internet or forums.

  • Proximity. Proximity means that each assigned member of the department should be in a position to “touch” citizens with the department’s message where and when appropriate.

Ben May 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.