In the May issue our focus on the financial aspects of small fire department management dealt with Budgeting Basics, Seeking Assistance, Alternative Funding and Creative Financing. We established a cadre of options available to small fire departments to help keep a small fire department afloat and...
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A small fire department is not often as bound by the stifling regulations placed upon a metropolitan fire department. A good for instance is, let's suppose your community just experienced straight-line winds that toppled everything from utility poles to Mrs. Dinsdale's elm tree. What's going to be the citizen and governing body reaction when the fire department shows up in force with 25 able bodies, chainsaws and whatever other equipment the department may have to help put everything back in order again? It would be rare to see a large metropolitan fire department doing such a thing, not because they don't want to, but because of the policies they operate under.
At community events offer blood pressure checks or fire extinguisher refills, direct traffic, do anything you can that makes everyone's life a little bit easier. Whenever the city council holds a public forum to discuss anything, whether it be a recreation center or city park, be there in uniform and offer the department's assistance in any way possible. Better yet, volunteer the fire station's meeting room or hall to use for the meeting location. The point: be visible, be helpful, be available - these are zero-dollar budget items.
Events like the fill-the-boot collections for the "Jerry Lewis Telethon for Muscular Dystrophy" show that the fire department cares enough to raise money for something other than itself. Again, do something that scores big points with the public for the fire department.
In small communities, the fire department is the public service entity people look up to. If you're not out where they can see you, what message does that send people?
Consider the department's alcohol policy. This article is not going to get into the debate over whether alcoholic beverages should be allowed in a fire station. Un-monitored use of alcohol at the fire station has proven to be a consistent negative marketing problem in the volunteer fire service. From a small fire department perspective, the best advice to heed is that if you are permitting alcohol in the fire station monitor it, don't make a spectacle of it, keep it off the street.
How does the department's equipment look? Dirty apparatus, even if it is a second-hand truck that long ago lost its luster, reflects a vacuum of pride in the department. Show the public you're taking care of what you do have and they're likely to entrust you with even more. The same can be said of facilities. Perhaps your department is operating out of a converted garage, but if it's the most stellar looking garage in the community a resident looks upon it and the firefighters staffing it with a whole different level of esteem than a firehouse with weeds growing along the foundation and peeling paint.
What about those T-shirts some firefighters wear that say something like "Butt-Naked Firefighting"? That's all good humor among firefighters, but it is not embraced in such a manner by the public. The small fire department whose members look, act and dress in a professional manner is held in high regard.
Every small community has something in its culture that sets it apart. It may be an annual poker run it hosts for bikers, a grand Fourth of July celebration, a gala Christmas spectacle, or it could be a major stopping point on a walking or hiking trail. These are small fire department marketing opportunities. Be in the defining things of your community; better yet, be at the forefront.
Marketing and customer service goes on at the emergency scene and following an incident. How a fire officer reacts to the nosy reporter sticking a microphone in his or her face says a lot for how your department is held in the public eye. The same applies when the press is interviewing you after the council meeting where you were denied your new Taj Mahal station. The key is, don't be derogatory; be factual.
A follow up with fire or emergency victims is the epitome of small fire department customer service. Touching people in some special way when they've just experienced the worst of life creates an indelible good impression.
"All the marketing in the world will not compensate for an inefficient and ineffective fire department," said Firehouse® marketing columnist Ben May, who served as fire commissioner in Woodinville, WA, from 1994 to 1998. "We are a public service, financially accountable to the citizens in our jurisdictions. This is a constant in our business regardless of public image. We might compare this to the accountability of a business and the fiduciary responsibility of stockholders. There are many differences; the biggest is that we do not make a profit. If we add more overhead costs in the form of additional firefighters, equipment or programs, it is not always easy to demonstrate the added value for the public. This will always be one of our greatest challenges. Marketing can support us in meeting this challenge if we use it to manage the evidence. This means showing the public how the added costs will maintain the service as it adds value. Measurements are part of that equation."