Fire Service Marketing Management: Part 2 - "Selling" The Fire Service

A wise fire chief once said that when a working fire broke out, the fire prevention system had broken down. "Selling" the fire service is firefighting after the marketing system has broken down. Keep in mind, however, that there is a definite place for selling in the same way that there is a place for fire suppression. There are now four critical aspects of our service:

  1. Prevention
  2. Public education
  3. Emergency response
  4. Customer service

There is a place for each aspect in our system.

As a point of comparison, here is how private enterprise marketing basics contrasts with emergency services marketing.

Marketing basics teaches the "Four Ps": product, price, place and promotion. Emergency services marketing defines its basic building blocks in the following manner:

  • The product is safety.
  • The price is taxes.
  • The place is any point of contact between the fire service and its customers (an incident, the firehouse, a public forum, public education or budget review). Firehouses are in every "market," every neighborhood.
  • Promotion is the safety message.
  • The department's representative in the field: all organizational members.

Any marketing or public affairs plan receives its marching orders from these four foundation blocks. The broad elements of a basic plan revolve around four external and internal customer-centered areas:

  1. Needs analysis
  2. Perception
  3. Need fulfillment
  4. Feedback

Marketing is the care, feeding and growth of the system itself. Successful marketing is inversely proportional to the need to sell. When you have to push hard to sell your department, it is generally too late to worry about marketing. Marketing must begin when people are reasonably receptive to the message.

A Marketing Plan

There is a time and place for the use of each marketing tool, but in a manner that fits into a working plan. Each sector of incident command is not the sole solution to the resolution of the emergency. The sectors working together create the solution, based on the total needs of the situation. Tactically speaking managing a marketing system for a fire and life safety agency is like managing an incident. The major difference is the nature of the "fireground" and the time horizons involved.

There is a systematic framework for daily marketing action, which can be applied to each department's specific goals and needs. Most significantly, the marketing function must be implemented each hour of every day in emergency as well as non-emergency conditions and environments.

There are 10 key elements of an operating marketing or public affairs plan. Such a plan should be created from the departmental strategic plan. In fact, many of the elements may be the same. It is the perspective, emphasis and actions that are different.

  1. Begin with a complete understanding of departmental mission, goals, strategic direction and needs.
  2. Jurisdictional mandates and codes.
  3. A detailed analysis and understanding of our various markets, including the internal ones. This means citizen demographics, corporations, organizations and institutions.
  4. A complete delineation of relationships affecting our department (political entities, civic leadership, liaison agencies).
  5. An understanding of how we are known to our markets and constituencies. This includes firefighters and officers. What are our internal and external images? How does the public view our services?
  6. Complete a needs analysis of our various publics. Can we eliminate some of our services? Should we add others?
  7. Determine realistic goals we can achieve based on departmental needs and those of our markets.
  8. Determine strategies and resources to achieve the goals.
  9. Formulate specific action-plans to put in place daily.
  10. Establish continuous feedback loop to monitor and modify the plan from real world experience.

The Marketing Mix

Once a strategic marketing plan is formulated, elements of the marketing mix must be chosen. The mix comprises those tactical tools that will achieve the short and long-term goals:

  1. Media
  2. Financial resources
  3. Educational programs
  4. Promotional programs
  5. Relationship management
  6. Personal selling
  7. Advertising
  8. Image

Positioning For The Future

A public service by definition is a service based on truthful, vital needs without a paramount profit motive. Positioning is the place that your service or department "owns" in the minds of its customers. Each of us receives over 3,000 messages daily from various media. Over the last 15 years, expenditures on network TV ads have consistently diminished while viewers have gone to other sources for information. Basically, a skeptical public has tuned out.

What the public is tuned into are concrete issues that affect their lives directly and locally: "News you can use." They are suspicious of any ad because they know its purpose is to sell a product for a profit. That is its purpose, regardless of the quality of the product or service.

Emergency service marketing demonstrates what it does as it educates, informs and mitigates problems. It tells what it does, without the profit motive. Public and emergency services are positioned for success.

We Need To Talk To Each Other About Marketing

There are many examples of successful marketing and public affairs programs in place today. In my interviews with firefighters and officers about their views and programs on marketing, I am always amazed at their generosity in giving information freely with little concern for personal credit. The problem is that we do not talk to ourselves very much about our successes.

In one of the recent issues of Firehouse® Magazine, Chief Dennis L. Rubin spoke to the need for a conference on marketing fire services. This suggestion emphasizes the acknowledged importance of its need and interest. Perhaps in such a conference, we could begin such a systematic dialogue.

Case Study: Greensboro, NC

One instructive example of a successful marketing program is that of the Greensboro, NC, Fire Department. The program is called the Community Involvement Communications Team (CICT). The goal of the team is to "promote and inform the citizens of Greensboro and elected officials of the diversified services the GFD provides as well as the benefits received through those services."

Greensboro has a Class 1 ISO rating as well as National Accreditation. The program is aggressively supported by Chief Johnny Teeters and is led by Battalion Chief Larry Cockman. The comprehensive plan details each aspect of the goals and needs of the department and its various constituencies. The result is a community that celebrates its fire department through financial, political and popular support. Other departments with aggressive marketing and public affairs plans are Denver, Phoenix, Tualatin Valley, OR (outside Portland), and Woodinville, WA.

Some observers have portrayed the fire service as resistant to change or unenlightened when it comes to defining its own future. The argument contends that we must let go of the past so that we can embrace a new vision of our future. This is only partially true. The traditions, history, motivation and systems of the American fire service provide the strengths and foundations for its future. Marketing has a significant contribution to make to that future.

Most of us are now familiar with the Washington Post survey noting that a community's local fire department commands trust second only to one's immediate family. There is not a corporation or business today that would not leap to possess the kind of image possessed by the fire service. The question is, how do we manage that image locally and nationally?

Traditional commercial mass selling and communication no longer work for a skeptical public. Enter the sleeping giant of public service marketing. The time has come for each department and the fire service in general to draw up the blueprints and open the marketing toolbox to sustain and grow its future for all of its customers and its members.

Ben May has over 15 years of experience creating and applying the discipline of fire service marketing management. He has been a firefighter, fire commissioner and marketing consultant to the fire service, and is a graduate of the Montgomery County, MD, Public Service Training Academy. May has over 25 years of leadership experience at senior corporate officer levels in marketing and sales in the U.S. and internationally. Currently, he is responsible for business development 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's degree in public affairs and received a master's degree in international communication from American University. May is a member of the Society of Executive Fire Officers and a trustee of the Education Foundation of the Florida Fire Chiefs Association. Part 1 was in the August issue.