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Question:

Answer: In essence you are right. Our core competency (an academic synonym for ?what we get paid to do better than anyone else?) is not marketing. However, if each of us does not understand the subject or how to apply it daily, we may not be able to practice our ?core competency? the way we believe we can be most effective. We might as well get used to the fact that a service that does not market does not exist.

Three months ago, I taught a three-day class in ?Emergency Services Marketing? at the Executive Officers Institute of the Florida Fire Chiefs Association. I asked the class in advance the following questions:

The class project was to work out these problems and to assist in planning for the achievement of the initiatives. Approximately 80% of the initiatives and problems had a direct relation to marketing, especially in terms of how the students viewed the problems and how they planned to deal with them.

We will spend the next few columns on a short course in marketing that you can literally carry in your wallet or stick on the dashboard of your rig. Marketing is a simple business and we should not make it any more complex or important than it is. It is nothing more than a tool, just like a halligan or an ax.

"The Four Ps"

There are four key elements of marketing known as ?The Four Ps?: place, price, product and promotion. There are many variations on these themes and we will address these modifications and their uses, but at the core these are the basics.

Most marketing professionals would probably start this little study with product (in our case I will use product and service interchangeably). I am going to start with place because I believe that it is absolutely critical to our success. The reason is simple. What is one of the first things most of our customers see as they drive through the neighborhood? The firehouse. (We might also want to think of our rigs as a modified version of place, especially when we are making ?house calls,? but for now, let?s concentrate on the fire station.)

There is a firehouse in every community in the country. This began when Ben Franklin founded the first organized fire company in Alexandria, VA, and it has continued its expansion (and some contractions now and then). This makes sense, as we need to be close to our customers and to the point of the origin of the reason for our existence: suppressing fires and handling life emergencies.

If we think about this even more, however, we can make a case for prevention as well, such as voluntary home inspections. After all, we are just down the street. The firehouse is the place where we keep our apparatus and where we live, train and maintain our watch on the citizens and property in our little corner of the world. It is our community and we live there. We should know everything about the safety needs in the neighborhood around our firehouse. Do you know the major potential safety among your customers, in addition to the key physical hazards?

From a marketing perspective, we probably have the next best access to our customers after McDonald?s! There are approximately 32,000 fire departments in the U.S. What kind of marketing clout does this give us? More than you might imagine.

Place and Proximity

Of all the things that predicate marketing success, one of the most significant is proximity and place ? being close to the customer. Here is an example from real life. About 30 years ago, I was recruited by a small wine company in Washington State called Chateau Ste. Michelle. There were eight of us in the sales force. Living in Bethesda, MD, I was the ?national account? manager. My job was to call on big hotel and restaurant companies. I ?made up? the job based on my skills (and the fact that I couldn?t do much else). Of course, I had no idea what I was doing other than the fact that I had to sell this Washington wine nobody knew about in a sea of French, Italian and California competitors.

It just so happened that one mile from my house was the headquarters of Marriott ? the biggest hotel chain in the country. If I could place my wine in all of Marriott nationally, I could greatly increase the exposure and sales of Chateau Ste. Michelle, perhaps giving our distributors across the country a way to increase their sales and buy more from us. I called on Marriott as often as necessary because I was just down the street. I created reasons to see the buyers so I could build the relationship.

Soon, I was like a ?member of the company? because I was always in proximity to the customer. My competitors could only see Marriott buyers infrequently because they had to fly in to meet with them. I would even slip in proposals late at night through the night watchman, who also knew me.

Within one year, Chateau Ste. Michelle was in every Marriott hotel in the country. A good 65% of the reason was place and proximity, not because of my ?superior sales skills.? Of course, the other factors were important as well (product, price and promotion). But if I had not started with place, I could not have arrived at square one. Proximity breeds sales.

Grassroots Marketing

Now that we know the importance of proximity, what can we do with this knowledge to support our mission? Plenty.

Some years ago, the concept of ?community policing? emerged as a way of getting to the root of crime in neighborhoods. The same applies to fire and EMS services. Here we have a building that our citizens own that is a 24-hour place of safety and care. Many stations have a sign on the front outside wall that states ?Safe Place.? In my opinion this says it all. Think of the comfort that sign conveys to our citizens. Here is a safe place with people who care.

If this short statement strikes a cord in your heart, then you know how many of our citizens feel alienated and alone. This piece of real estate has value well beyond housing apparatus and firefighters. First, look at its name. In addition to something like Station 21, Engine 4, Ladder 16 ? names that mean something to us, but nothing to our customers ? many departments name their stations for the neighborhoods they protect, such as East Orange Station 21 or Hyde Park Station. Just this small change gives local citizens the notion that our doors are always open to them. Our house is their house.

There are at least 10 to 15 services we can perform in the station for and with our citizens while we are creating a one-to-one relationship with them. And each relationship is unique. You cannot duplicate a relationship. It is not possible. People tend to support people they know. Don?t we tend to do business with people we know and like first? An activity in the firehouse provides opportunities to assist our customers as they become acquainted with our services and us. In this way they see and know the services their taxes (price) are providing. Some of these activities are as follows:

  • Fire prevention seminars
  • Blood pressure checks
  • Station tours
  • ?After the fire? explanations soon after an incident in the neighborhood
  • CPR classes
  • Red Cross activities such as water safety
  • Babysitting classes
  • Fire cadet classes
  • Disaster preparedness seminars
  • Citizen advisory group meetings
  • Citizen academies
  • Safety inspections and explanations to local business groups and businesses
  • CERT training
  • Planning a home escape and practicing it
  • Apparatus and drill presentations
  • Smoke detector classes
  • Sprinkler classes for citizens and home builders
  • Joint home safety classes with home improvement companies
  • Joint safety classes with the police, power and water departments as well as with local meteorologists
  • Wellness seminars for the elderly and physical fitness for baby boomers
  • A ?know your fire department? dinner

With the new initiatives for citizen volunteers, you may want to consider asking some of these non-emergency auxiliary supports to assist in your efforts, thus making the customers part of the safety solution. This is especially for older folks who have a wealth of knowledge and want to contribute.

The use of the firehouse should be a key element in a public service marketing plan. All of the planning and implementation strategies mean nothing if they cannot be implemented at the local level.

If a marketing plan is going to break down, it will break down locally. Conversely, if it succeeds, it will be because the firefighters in each station optimized the opportunities of place in the neighborhood firehouse.


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 firecom1@aol.com.

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