USFA’S Quick Response System: A Marketing ICS That Works

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Answer: There are many similarities between the commercial marketing world and that of emergency services. In terms of time horizons, there are long-term strategic marketing plans and short-term tactical plans. The difference between commercial marketing and public service emergency marketing is that we think we do not have the luxury of choosing the time and place to apply the service. In fact, that is not necessarily true; for example, when it comes to prevention and public education. But, when an incident does occur, each jurisdiction needs a mechanism to respond through communication, awareness and education. This becomes a powerful tool for fire, EMS and disaster preparation and prevention. The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), in coordination with its public relations agency, Hager Sharp, has developed a system that works.

In my September column, I discussed the concept of “Marketing ICS” as a mechanism for implementing a marketing action plan. The concept of Marketing ICS is so important that I’ve made it the new name of my column. This month, the focus is on the USFA Quick Response System.

First, a few facts from the future about your career in terms of fire prevention and public education. Before we discuss the elements of the Quick Response System, it is important to ground us all in what a mentor of mine used to call “the facts of life.”

The fire service, paid and volunteer, must come to grips with the fact that emergency response is only one element of our responsibility as public servants. Fire departments in other countries, specifically the U.K. and Japan, have understood this for some time. They do not necessarily look at prevention and education as more important than suppression, but they do understand that it is very important as well as more cost effective in saving human and hard resources. It is a complete fire and life safety system.

The United States logged approximately 1.6 million fires in 2003. In those fires, 3,500 people died, 14,000 people were injured and over $6 billion in property was lost. That’s just the fire equation. It does not even touch the other services we deliver. There is rarely a day that goes by across this country in every single city and town that the public does not see our brothers and sisters on the TV or in the newspaper in some kind of situation where we are doing our jobs. This is why it is so perplexing that many of us have such a narrow view of who we are and what we do.

Hager Sharp is a full-service public relations firm that has specialized for 30 years in providing strategic communications, public relations, marketing and public affairs leadership to corporate, government and not-for-profit clients. The firm is dedicated to making a difference in the world, and works only with organizations, firms and institutions that have a mission to contribute to society. A regional firm based in Baltimore, the company numbers some of the top government, not-for-profits and public service corporations among its clients.

One of Hager Sharp’s greatest strengths is its ability to understand its clients’ needs and create effective communication tools to provide solutions. I first met with Hager Sharp executives thanks to Kathy Gerstner, the executive with USFA responsible for national public fire education programs in Wayne Powell and Cortez Lawrence’s National Fire Programs section. Hager Sharp’s work supports USFA’s objectives to reduce the loss of life from fire among high-risk populations, including children, people ages 65-plus and firefighters. As one of the executives noted to me for this article, “Job No. 1 for every campaign is to raise awareness of fire risk among high-risk audiences and their caregivers, who are crucial primary audiences for young children and older people. People in general do not believe that fire can happen to them. Hand-in-hand with increased awareness is public education about how to prevent fires (with messages that address the leading causes of fires among groups targeted for a particular campaign) and fire safety messages that enable people to respond effectively when fire does happen. The broad scope of Hager Sharp’s work includes strategic campaign planning, market research, message and materials development, media relations and events, and the development of partnership programs. Our work benefits from a strong collaboration with USFA experts.”

How Quick Response Works: Marketing ICS and the Media

Most of us know that the media are the tactical shock troops for most incidents in dealing with the public. The Quick Response program is designed to seize the teachable moment immediately following a residential fire death or injury in the community. USFA has 13 fire fact sheets with statistics and tips specific to fires of various causes, risks and prevention. Hager Sharp and USFA track news accounts daily of residential fire deaths and injuries around the country. Hager Sharp then promptly sends local media a fire fact sheet with information about how such a fire might have been prevented. It often follows up with calls, encouraging reporters to incorporate this fire safety information in their news stories. Additionally, the fact sheets are sent to fire stations in the local community so they can see the same information in their news stories. Senior USFA spokespeople have found an additional use for the Quick Response information: they include selected fires in speeches and presentations, lending a real-time emphasis to the comments.

Quick Response Media Corps

USFA and Hager Sharp have expanded the program by recruiting members of the fire service to join their Quick Response Media Corps. The invitation to join the program begins with a letter from the deputy fire administrator offering the complete set of 13 fact sheets and asking recipients to sign up for the Quick Response Media Corps. In addition to the fact sheets, fire chiefs and public information officers can sign up to receive periodic e-mails with tips for media outreach and other resources including ideas for news releases and op-ed articles.

Thus far, more than 1,200 members of the fire service have enrolled. Every other month, they receive an e-bulletin with highlights of recent news stories resulting from Quick Response; tips for cultivating media attention; and a section that features info-sharing and successes submitted by the Quick Response Media Corps members themselves. The e-bulletin also recently conveyed advance notice of new public-education campaigns about to be unveiled by USFA.

Respondents are also asked if they want to be a contact for local media following a fire in their community. Earlier this year, Hager Sharp proposed to USFA that we add a component to the program to further encourage and assist fire departments in proactive media outreach.

“This is hands down the best idea that USFA has come up with yet,” wrote a Michigan fire chief. And from Kansas: “Our department is just starting a PSA program. These fact sheets will help in ideas and current facts. Thanks.” A fire chief from Illinois wrote, “This is a great idea. We need to constantly inform the public of the dangers of fire. Awareness of the hazard is the key to avoiding it.”

“Six Degrees of Separation” And the Future of Quick Response

There could be a number of extensions to this program. First, the program allows us all to speak with each other about lessons learned and success stories. So it’s a great feedback loop. Second, the system can be used to highlight incidents that didn’t happen because of public education and prevention programs that worked before an incident occurs. Third, the Quick Response system can be expanded to include injury prevention, hazmat situations, disaster preparation and prevention.

The beauty of the Quick Response system lies in its ability to focus on an incident throughout the country while providing 30 years of public relations marketing expertise and an intimate knowledge of the fire service to use the incident for education and mitigation. In consideration of your jurisdiction’s marketing plan, Quick Response should be its tactical centerpiece.

For more information on the Quick Response System, contact Kathy Gerstner of USFA at 301-447-1350 or at kathy.gerstner@fema.gov.


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.

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