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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May provides eight areas of fire department operations that have measurable parameters the public understands that can be used in marketing: general fire protection, fire suppression, training, dispatch/communications, fire prevention, vehicle/equipment operations, medical and emergency management.
How marketing and customer service can work in a small fire department is explained by the experiences of Chief Daniel Rocque of the Satellite Beach Fire Department, serving a community of 10,000 people in Florida.
"Through the years, we've impressed upon our personnel that customer service is very important," said Rocque. "You might call that in itself a marketing strategy because it generates good support from the people we serve and our municipal officials."
Rocque further explained: "The general essence of our marketing plan is to identify and provide for the needs that seem out of the norm for fire departments. It goes back to the old adage: if you don't know or can't find it, call the fire department; they're the can-do people. The biggest thing I hear from small fire departments is 'We don't have the resources or manpower to put a marketing plan in place.' So many people think that a marketing plan has to be something real definitive. All you have to do is provide good customer service. That may mean you've got to think outside the box a little bit. We mandate customer service in our policies. I think that's necessary."
The Satellite Beach Fire Department does a variety of customer service activities that gain funding from the people it serves. The department sends out a pre-printed card to people it has assisted on EMS calls, wishing them well. Periodically, department members visit people after they get back from the hospital. "It's our way of keeping in touch with constituents," said Rocque. "It was unintentional on our part, but we do get donations because of these things."
The department also takes public education seriously by holding CPR classes, babysitter courses and even providing bandage care for people who have just returned home from the hospital. If you have a flat tire or car trouble in the Satellite Beach fire district and an emergency response unit is passing by, the crew is going to stop and lend a hand. If you have children in one of the Satellite Beach fire district's grade schools, a uniformed firefighter reading to the class is going to be a familiar sight.
Rocque is quick to point out that financial gain was not the motive for any of the above mentioned activities. The motive is customer service; all the contributions and thank-you notes the department receives from its customer service activities are secondary and icing on the cake.
The flow-through from good customer service is invariably that the next time the department has its hand out, the public is going to extend an extra amount of generosity and the governing body will at the very least be more amenable to assisting you.
What it comes down to with customer service is that every citizen, every incident and every interaction with the public represents a marketing opportunity for the small fire department. Capitalizing on the opportunity is not expensive or time consuming.
The Role of Leadership
"You can do a lot with very little if you've got the right leadership," observed Chief Charlie Garrett of the Oriental, NC, Fire Department, a small fire department serving a community of 2,500 people. Garrett's observation should become indelibly burned into the thoughts of every reader of this article. Every factor you look at that influences funding for small fire departments pales in comparison to the influence of leadership.
Leadership will be the capstone article in this series. Suffice it to say for this article that good leadership overcomes all obstacles and one of those in a small fire department is funding. The hallmark of good financial leadership is the ability to lobby and express the fire department's needs to the public and governing body in an influential way coupled with a leader's ability to ferret out alternate sources of income for the fire department. Without leadership that is persistent in the pursuit of additional funding, crippling financial hurdles will quickly encumber a small fire department.