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

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...


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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.