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In educational seminars conducted for the fire service around the country, it is becoming more common to see presentations about marketing the fire service or the importance of customer service for your department. You can usually find at least one these seminars at any of the numerous professional venues - from the annual Firehouse Expo to the Executive Fire Officer development course at the National Fire Academy to meetings of the National Volunteer Fire Council and the International Association of Fire Chiefs, to name a few.
What is the necessity for applying what appear to be business formulas and techniques to a respected and effective public service that has been a part of the fabric of the American community since Ben Franklin founded the first volunteer fire department?
This is a great question and one that we should always be able to answer, especially among ourselves. Hal Bruno noted in his August Fire Politics column, "At a time when they should be hiring firefighters and spending more on training and equipment, many jurisdictions are cutting fire department budgets." He was referring to the consistent need for the fire service to have the monetary and political support for every local department to be best prepared for a catastrophic attack on American soil. For Hal Bruno and those of us who know how essential this support is, it is a critical need and one that puts our nation at potential risk without the needed support. Remember the afterglow of our reputation after 9/11? Where did that go? Into thin air, of course. Any marketing person could have predicted that one.
The marketing challenge is no different than one on the fireground. For a marketing person this is simply one more challenge among the many that are leading to the growth in effectiveness and influence of the American fire and emergency services. This is not just unrealistic optimism. It is simply one viewpoint. It is submitting the problem to the filter of marketing. Seen in that way, these problems are not insurmountable, but they are significantly challenging, just like a major incident. It is just that our main function is to mitigate against fires and other emergencies instead of being a marketing company. So many things just depend on your perspective, don't they?
Here's an example we can all understand. I have been reading former FDNY Commissioner Thomas Von Essen's book, Strong of Heart. Incidentally, the book is a great read. I really like Tom. He's bright and has a big heart, and he has always wanted the best for his department and the fire service. At any rate, when confronted by the unfolding tragedy of 9/11 as it mutated out of control, Tom notes that, "Even at the worst fires or disasters, firefighters are accustomed to taking control of a scene, sometimes after a fierce battle, to be sure, but setting its boundaries, containing the damages and injuries, finding a way to corner our enemy."
For firefighters and fire officers this is the normal situation we face daily. We have a whole set of disciplines in our toolbox we use that are second nature to us so that we can deal with about any contingency, or at the very least learn from it so we can strengthen the tactics of our responses - even after 9/11. But to any citizen who has ever been in an emergency situation, it can be one of chaos and fear.
So what does this have to do with marketing? Quite a bit. It's a matter of sizing up the situation, creating a plan, determining what tools you need, attacking the problem, and learning from your mistakes when you analyze and measure the results. When a marketer sees a fire department's or the entire fire service's "problems," they really do not carry the concern or fear that one might have if unaccustomed to such difficulties. These include budget constraints, potential manpower cutbacks or major competition such as law enforcement. They also include union and management issues, department scandals, and the number of services we should offer and how our performance is measured. A marketer sees these issues in the form of significant, but normal marketing challenges, just as we see normal challenges in a major fire or disaster situation.