Customer-Centered Prevention: Part 1 – “Size-Up”

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Question: How can a fire department leverage marketing to achieve its prevention goals within its community?

Answer: Comprehensive fire and safety prevention - largely in the form of education - presents the best opportunity for any department to increase its awareness in the community while achieving its primary goal of keeping its citizens safe from harm. It would not be too much to say that the effectiveness of fire and life safety education to a great degree depends on the effectiveness of its marketing. It would also be true to say that fire prevention and education affords the largest opportunity to affect the most people with our visibility, messages and image.

The issue of prevention is probably the single most important emerging opportunity for any department to gain visibility among the citizens, institutions and businesses it protects. The great opportunity that prevention provides is that the department can actually achieve one of the primary functions of its mission - stopping fires and accidents before they can occur - through the marketing mechanism, and to the most people.

Think of it this way. How many people really use our service at any one time compared to those who don't? When our citizens do need us, they are usually not in a position to receive a safety message because by the time they call us, it is already too late. There is also the fact that they may be in a life-or-death situation. At the very least, they are in a state of extreme stress - not really a conducive atmosphere for learning a safety message.

The best time to be proactive in reaching the most people is when we can deliver our messages to large amounts of people or to individual business owners in a setting that is conducive to receiving our message and in seeing us as the keeper of the safety toolbox. Each depends on the other. This is the crux of effective marketing and sales. On the one hand, the reason this opportunity has emerged deals with the changing nature of our communities, the proliferation of information and the communication mechanisms that make it more readily available. On the other hand, marketing has been associated with prevention and safety education since these programs began. This is called "social marketing" because it is aimed at changing behavior.

Our History Is Based On Suppression

The history of the development of the U.S. fire service has followed a suppression orientation since its foundation in the 1700s. Typically, the individual who wants to become a firefighter is a mission-driven, action-oriented person who sees himself or herself as contributing to the common good of his or her community: an action hero or heroine.

The majority of training and preparation is directed toward the goal of taking action in emergency situations, whether they be fires, injuries, illnesses or accidents. These emergency incidents range from small car accidents to multiple home conflagrations or mass casualties such as the terrorist attacks on 9/11. However, as first responders, it is important to view ourselves as the source with the responsibility for all forms of fire and life protection. This means prevention and education first. While we are trained to respond to action when necessary, it is our mission to lead the community in preventing the incident before it can happen, if possible. Enter the marketing mechanism.

Comprehensive Prevention

As first responders offering a wide range of safety services the fire department has the responsibility for over 15 different services, including EMS, hazmat and homeland security. Approximately 20% of actual responses involve firefighting.

I came across the term "comprehensive prevention" in the recent edition of Managing Fire and Rescue Services, edited by Dennis Compton and John Granito. The term is chock full of marketing opportunities. Most marketers want to "own" the market for all of their products and services. The more we use the term comprehensive prevention, the more our customers will get the picture that we offer a wide range of services and they do not all involve fires or other critical incidents. In this way comprehensive means the entire array of safety services.

According to Jim Crawford, fire marshal in Portland OR, and author of the chapter on "Comprehensive Prevention Programs" in Managing Fire and Rescue Services, comprehensive prevention involves the following key elements: engineering, enforcement, education and investigation. Engineering involves built-in mitigation measures and fixed fire protection before building construction begins. The fire marshal's office has the responsibility of ongoing plans review for current code maintenance. Enforcement means the establishment of local regulations that mandate how a building will be constructed to mitigate fire and life loss.

Engineering and enforcement, however, can only go so far in ensuring the protection of lives and property. Most fires - approximately 80% - still occur in single-family dwellings in lower-income areas. We know that automatic in-home sprinklers would mitigate the fire problem. However, the political process of gaining the kind of legislation for this protection is slow in coming and even when passed will first apply to new construction. There will be little or no effect on low-income groups with old construction. As the demographics of our country continue to change the need for fire and life safety education will increase dramatically. Both in-home mitigation and behavior change are marketing problems that can be addressed through a marketing plan.

Finally, investigation is the fourth element of comprehensive prevention. The creation of almost all fire codes are the result of lessons learned from a past disaster-from the Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago in 1903, to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York in 1911, to the MGM Grand fire in Las Vegas in 1980, to the 9/11 World Trade Center terrorist attack in 2001.

The Marketing Challenge

Significant challenges now face the fire service. Our communities continue to see us in a positive light. However, when it comes to changing behavior for our citizens protection - whether in the form of educating the public or enforcing mandates - the most effective marketing tools are of critical use to each fire department. Lack of financial and human resources present major obstacles to fulfillment of the prevention and marketing mission.

The changing nature of our society in composition, income, size and cultural biases coupled with the lack of local departmental resources present a significant challenge to the fire service. Add to this the increasing threat of hazardous technologies and preparations for the protection of the homeland. Some of the more significant forces pulling at our ability to achieve our prevention goals are: the cultural bias of the United States that technology is the only answer to our problems, our attitudes toward fire, and the fire service's bias toward suppression as reflected in its training and resources.

In a typical fire department less than 2% of the budget is devoted to fire and life safety education, usually staffed with the fewest number of professionals and paid the lowest salary. These unsung heroes (in most cases, heroines) are ingenious in their ability to do their jobs effectively with the meager resources they usually possess. Yet they deliver our message to the largest number of citizens in many cases. Luckily, programs such as "Learn Not to Burn" and "Risk Watch" from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) have extended the ability of the fire educator to deliver the message in our schools. The "silver bullet" of technology will not impact low-income housing one iota, nor will education for immigrant groups that do not speak English as their first language.

Phil Schaenaman of Tri-Data has produced seminal works comparing Asian and European fire prevention education programs to those in the United States. The most significant differences deal with the way these other cultures view safety education and personal responsibility as a priority. When an accidental fire occurs in a home in Japan, the citizen is ostracized; in the U.S., we bring blankets. This is not a judgment on either approach. It just gives us a wider range of understanding for educational and mandated options.

Fire officers in Japan and France, for example, are assigned to prevention first and for long periods. They are taught that their primary function is that of an engineer who suppresses fire as a last option. This is simply a matter of emphasis. It is subtle, but it affects the way a firefighter views himself or herself on the job, and how the community views safety and their firefighters. In fact, the Institution of Fire Engineers, a U.K.-based society of firefighters, uses the term engineers to apply to all professionals who deal with fire prevention and suppression. This especially includes firefighters - as engineers.

How we see ourselves is one of the key issues with which we must deal when we grapple with prevention and education. It is the excitement factor. We must look beyond suppression as a necessary function of last resort and see ourselves in a multi-dimensional manner, delivering a wide array of services and knowledge to help our citizens protect themselves with us as the activator and guide. This means we must understand how to instill the proactive, mission-centered mentality to prevention and education so that we are serving the need of our citizen customers for safety.

Thanks to the proliferation of information and the increased interest in personal and national safety among the aging baby boomers and all of society since 9/11, we have a real opportunity to fulfill our mission while increasing or marketing support. Here is a challenge: read your department's mission statement. I will bet you in 95% of the cases, the words prevention and education are in the first or second sentence. It is time to give them the priority they deserve as stated in the departmental mission. Their effective marketing can result in a quantum leap for our awareness and image in our communities, while fulfilling our primary mission.

Next: Strategic Marketing Action Plans for Fire Prevention and Education - Marketing Their Effectiveness Through Measurements

(Works cited: Corbett, Glenn P. "The Fire Prevention Bureau." The Fire Chief's Handbook. 5th ed., Bachtler and Brennan. Chapter 27; Crawford, Jim. "Comprehensive Prevention Programs." Managing Fire and Rescue Services. Dennis Compton and John Granito (Ed.); Nachbar, Mary. "Public Education." The Fire Chief's Handbook. 5th ed. Bachtler and Brennan. Chapter 27; Schaenaman, Phillip. "Concepts in International Fire Protection." Tri-Data Corp.)


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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