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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.
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.