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Answer: This question really goes to the heart of our mission. This is something of which we always need to be aware, especially when making decisions about priorities in the delivery of our service and in justifying our existence. And if we are sometimes confused about our business, you can bet our customers are confused, especially when it comes to paying for the services. The bigger issue is what does this mean for the future of the fire service. The real question is, ?How has our product evolved and where is it going??
In part 2 of this Marketing 101 series, we define the product or service. The product or service is what we do: the services we deliver to our customers. Some years ago, a front-page article in The Wall Street Journal discussing the pros and cons of four-person engine companies noted that, in general, firefighters did not have as much to do as in the past. The reason for this, the report contended, was because of the great job we had done in prevention, specifically in the dissemination of smoke alarms. The article also pointed to the fact that the number of fires had steadily decreased over the previous 15 years.
At the time, the issue of four-person engine companies was just appearing on the radar screen. The article went on to note that if we were to have four-person engine companies, then the costs to local government and the citizens could be prohibitive. In other words, the cost was much higher than the benefit, especially if we did not have as many fires. The impression was that if we did not put out fires, then we were sitting around, watching TV and cooking dinner.
Think about it in the eyes of the citizens. Why would we want to spend significantly more money (i.e., staffing and equipment) on a problem that was diminishing? Does that make financial sense? Does it now?
That was before 9/11. Remember all of the exposure to firefighters for about six months to a year after that day that will forever be etched into our national psyche and that of the fire service? Now that we are 21?2 years past that horrific date, do you think that our customers are any more enlightened now about what we do? Chances are that they are not. I do think that they are more aware of our value to the community and they know that we will come for almost any emergency. But they do not know all of the services and products we bring to the public. So if they do not know these products and services, why should they pay for all of them? Should we eliminate some of them?
In my December 2003 column, I discussed the importance and meaning of the term ?brand.? We need to contrast and compare a brand with a product. A product is basically anything that can be offered to a market for attention, acquisition, use or consumption that could satisfy a need or want.
A product could be a physical, tangible good (e.g., a tool, book, automobile or smoke detector), service (e.g., bank, airline, insurance company or fire suppression), retail store (e.g., supermarket, specialty store, department store or fire station), person (e.g., politician, entertainer, professional athlete or firefighter), organization (e.g., a nonprofit, trade, professional group, arts group or fire service group like the International Association of Fire Chiefs), place (e.g., a city, state, country or fire district) or idea (e.g., political or social cause such as fire prevention). It is important to grasp the broad definition of the term, as it is possible to match some aspect of the fire service to all of these various definitions. This has quite a bit to do with fire department strategic planning, the ?brand equity? of each fire department and fire service organization. It also has much to do with a marketing plan that works.
The point here is that the brand ?fire department? becomes synonymous with the product and service it delivers and those are very broad areas. Here is a real irony of the situation. Most people do not know all that we do. Many people think that we may not have enough to do. But we think we have much too much to do. Ask any firefighter and he or she will tell you that with EMS, now terrorism and security as well as hazmat coupled with fire prevention, education and massive amounts of training, we never have enough time to do all of the things we are called upon to do.
Examining What We Do
So let?s look at our product and service. One way to review them is how they have expanded over time. One marketing guru has labeled them in the following manner:
2. The Generic Product (for our purposes we will use product and service interchangeably) level is the basic version of the product containing only those characteristics absolutely necessary for its functioning, but with no other distinguishing features. This is the singular purpose for the existence of the service. If we look at the early history of firefighting in America, we see that our basic mission was to fight fires and that was the extent of our service. This was true because we were an all-volunteer function, so time was very much a limiting factor. Also, one of the prime motivating elements for becoming a firefighter was the attraction of the action and the heroism involved in the work. Socially, the position was one of prestige. As an example, the first four presidents of the U.S. were volunteer firefighters.
3. The Expected Product is the number of characteristics the customer expects to receive when we deliver the product. When we only extinguished fires, our citizens came to expect, for instance, that the fire department was the first service to call for a fire, that we would come as soon as possible to their emergency and that we would put out the fire. Salvage and overhaul have always been a natural extension of suppression. That was the extent of the service in the minds of the general public. If we begin to segment or divide our various customers into groups, then we can add other expected products and services. For example, business owners know that plans review, pre- fire plans and inspections are a normal part of our service. Add to this fire investigation. Public schools know that public fire education is also a part of the service.
4. The Augmented Product includes an expansion of the service and its benefits into additional areas of importance to the customer. Here is an area that has seen much activity in the fire service. These kinds of additional services include emergency medical response with the application of rescue, basic life support (BLS) and advanced life support (ALS) as well as transport in some jurisdictions. This has really become a natural evolution over the past 30 years. Many citizens probably take it so much for granted that EMS is now part of the expected product. We can definitely add to this list hazmat and emergency preparedness as well as high-angle and confined-space rescue. Finally, we can look at Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) from many departments all over the country. This is a fairly loaded plate, especially when one considers the constant training involved. Geography also plays a part. Problems vary in different parts of the country. Consider how we deploy our resources. The growth of the wildland/urban interface is an obvious, growing issue in many parts of the country compared to earthquakes in the West and Northwest and tornadoes in the South and Midwest.
5. The Potential Product is the exciting part because it represents the transformation of our business and our future. One way to look at the potential product is to understand the fire service as a relatively fixed cost. Understanding that there are cost increases in any department (e.g., labor, equipment refurbishment, etc.), one can still make an argument that any fire department is a relatively inexpensive investment considering the return. This is especially true when one considers the present menu of services. And this is the main point when discussing our effectiveness vs. our costs. We will leave this discussion for the next installment, when we discuss price. It is a critical issue ? it is the issue ? and one that we will approach in detail because it has to do with our effectiveness as the public sees it. This is one we really need to review in detail when considering cost increases that could accompany potential services. (Reference: Keller, Kevin Lane; Strategic Brand Management, Prentice Hall, 2003.)
Considerations For the Future
When considering the potential product, we can look at all of the variations under the topic ?homeland security.? This area can be divided among the different specialties such as biological and chemical attacks as well as infrastructure damage. While we look at these as immediate or emergency preparedness concerns, we need to also consider the evolution and emphasis of present fire and EMS services. For instance, fire prevention, education and sprinkler legislation represent the future of the fire protection part of the service. Wellness and injury prevention represent the expansion of EMS.
When we look at the pure customer services that we perform, there is a menu of things to consider. These services entail how we treat our customers before, during and after an incident. Preservation of business functions and access to other services such as the Red Cross, insurance companies and psychological counseling come to mind. This is an enormous area for the potential product and one which can have the largest impact on how the public sees us. We can call this area ?customer care.?
Finally, there is the entire area of non-emergency services such as the care and transport of the elderly. As we consider trends and changes in our society, we can see how much of what we do starts to blend into a kind of social service, at least in the way we handle our customers. Consider the diversity of cultures with which we are now faced and how we approach a Russian community in New York City or Korean communities in Los Angeles. This has to do with the customer?s point of reference, not ours. Remember, the problem is the customer?s. We are there to alleviate the situation or to prevent it from occurring in the first place.
Life Safety Is Our Business
We began this discussion by asking the question, ?What business are we really in?? The answer has as much to do with the benefits the citizens perceive they receive as the actual products and services we deliver. A benefit can be an intangible notion as much as the physical attribute. But people tend to attach benefits to the product or service. It probably does not matter as long as we perform professionally and our customers understand our value.
If we track the evolution of our service, we can really say that we are in the life safety business. That is a long walk from the days when we just put out fires. In the end, the business we are in is providing peace of mind. This means delivering safety and care to our citizens, businesses and institutions so that of all of the services they think they can rely on, ours is number one.
Ben May has over 15 years of experience creating and applying the discipline of marketing management to fire departments and emergency service organizations. He has been a firefighter and fire commissioner, and is a graduate of the Montgomery County, MD, Public Service Training Academy. May has over 25 years of experience in business-to-business marketing and sales in the U.S. and internationally. Currently, his responsibilities include developing new business at Walt Disney World?s Epcot. May was fire commissioner in Woodinville, WA, from 1994 to 1998. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor of arts degree in public affairs and received his master of arts degree in international communication from the American University. May is a member of the Society of Executive Fire Officers, a trustee of the Education Foundation of the Florida Fire Chiefs Association and a board member of the Tampa Firefighter?s Museum. He welcomes your feedback on the column and he may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.