Customer Service, Souther Style: Part 1 - Getting Started

Reflecting back to a few decades ago, most of the American fire service was enthusiastically diving into the delivery of emergency medical services. The quality of street-level medical care in our country has dramatically improved since the entry of fire departments into this arena. The acceptance of this major responsibility is the most likely reason why the vast majority of firefighters enjoy tremendous support and respect today.

The next wave to wash over our shores happened about 10 years later. It was the preparation for, response to, and recovery from the uncontrolled release of hazardous materials. As our society has continued to benefit from a proliferation of chemical compounds, the need to handle various accidents becomes necessary. Overwhelmingly, we have answered this call to additional duties superbly.

The newest and maybe the greatest change to crash into our business is the notion of "customer service." Your author predicts that fire history books will record the '90s as the era of customer service enlightenment. With these historical mileposts in mind, let's look at how the Dothan, AL, Fire Department is thriving in a customer-focused culture.

"Stick To The Knitting"

In getting started, allow me to set the stage to describe our "southern-made" program. First and foremost, we must "stick to the knitting" as Tom Peters discusses in his brilliant work on organizational excellence. To translate, we must be ready and able to deliver "world-class" quality fire, emergency medical, rescue and hazmat-control services to our community. If we can't perform our assigned mission well, customer service really does not have any purpose. I get real nervous when we can't flawlessly perform all of the basics of our business. It wouldn't make much sense spending time and effort to add services if we couldn't do well at our core work.

Next, our customer service delivery system is a lot like the highways in the great state of Alabama - they are both under construction, with an eye toward continuous improvement. We are always looking for logical opportunities to work in value-added programs that are helpful to the taxpaying citizens that we serve. It has been amazing watching our talented and capable firefighters refine our customer service program given the time, resources and support.

The foundation of our efforts is an outward and spoken organizational value towards customer service. Rooted into our mission statement is the focus on the highest level of help to those in need. To illustrate our culture, we have converted a van-type vehicle into a "customer service unit." At all significant incidents a customer service sector is established. A committee meets regularly to review our customer service functions. Each of these items will be discussed in future articles, but I want to get the idea across that the concept of customer service is a corporate philosophy. We "talk the talk and walk the walk" at all ranks within the department regarding customer service. Without this level of organizational commitment, any program would flounder at best.

Feedback From Those We Serve

Just over two years ago, we implemented a customer survey/feedback process. Along with other useful materials, everyone who receives services from the Dothan Fire Department is mailed a postcard. This postcard asks five simple questions that we call our business indicators. The questions are laid out in a "yes or no" format to make it easy on those who respond to our request for feedback. The five questions are:

  1. Did we respond quickly? Yes/No
  2. Did we solve your problem? Yes/No
  3. Did we act professionally? Yes/No
  4. Did we look professional? Yes/No
  5. Did we treat you nicely? Yes/No

The postcard is pre-printed with our address and pre-stamped. The card has a place for written comments as well as an optional section for name and phone number. The concept is to make it easy and quick for the customer to communicate with us. Chief Joe Starnes of Sandy Ridge, NC, and of AT&T customer service fame (who is also a Firehouse® Magazine contributor and Firehouse Emergency Services Expo speaker) helped in the development of these five critical business indicators.

The return rate of the postcards has been about 20%. The feedback has been more that 99% positive with one exception. We get about 1% more negative responses on the "solved the problem" indicator. After a heart-stopping moment, we determined that the reason for this trend is the interpretation of the question. The written comments about question two typically sounds something like, "The firefighters were great and did a swell job, but Grandpa still has congestive heart failure." (We'll clarify this question before the next printing.)

An annual report is part of outreach efforts to educate the community about the department's mission and services.

The fire chief personally reviews and initials each and every card. The responses, along with all written comments, are entered into a database. Quarterly printouts are prepared and circulated to the entire membership with that week's staff minutes. This positive firefighter feedback helps to keep the energy in the customer service program. Everyone likes their time in the spotlight by having their name in the staff minutes or newspaper.

Further, the results are formally presented to our governing body and the local media at a city commission meeting. This reporting process has been a valuable tool in securing and maintaining departmental resources.

Each negative written comment is followed up, if the respondent provides a telephone number. In most cases, the situation is resolved to some level of satisfaction. Of the few who need to be contacted, most are surprised that someone from the government would take the time and effort to follow up with a call. The negative responses are not viewed as a failure or problem, but as an opportunity for improvement. Several changes have been made to various programs solely based on customer input.

The customer survey instrument is tucked into a "get well" or "sorry for your fire loss" card. The community response to both of these items has been super. If the response was a fire incident, the family receives something else, a brochure titled, After The Fire. This tri-fold brochure provides a wealth of information about how to reconnect a household after experiencing a fire event. Included are telephone numbers of social agencies that can be helpful in the recovery process. As well, insurance, clean-up and other pertinent information is included in this handout. The customer service sector officer gives and reviews this brochure with the owner/occupant while we are still on location. Experience has indicated that the materials left behind during the stressful time of the tragedy are often misplaced. The mailed copy, arriving a few days later, seems to be the most welcomed.

The last component of customer feedback loop is after-incident visits. An attempt is made to visit the location of every major incident by one of the command-level officers. The chief officer talks to the owner/occupant to determine the level of performance of the department. The owner/occupant is given another explanation of the tactical actions. This discussion is held during the incident, but due to the stress and noise factors it is difficult for them to comprehend all that is relayed. This is a great time to help with referrals to social service agencies.

Once again, the customer is pleased that we would take the time to follow up on our work. This visit also serves the purpose of gathering any additional information for the incident critique. Many times, however, the family or business is vacant, making it difficult to find anyone during the follow-up visit.

It's A New Era

To summarize, it just makes sense that fire departments should look toward improved customer relations and satisfaction as a great opportunity. In these days of shrinking budgets and dwindling resources, we must take a proactive stance to protect our service. The days of sitting in the firehouse, hugging the coffee pot, hoping for the big one are gone forever.

Consider that most police agencies are redirecting their efforts into "community policing" and the Army Reserve is campaigning to be the major player in disaster response and recovery. Do we have any other choice? Solid customer service and added-value programs are our saving grace.

I hope this information has given you a starting point. Look for more information on this topic in future articles.

Copies of the documents described in this article may be obtained by contacting Chief Dennis L. Rubin, Dothan Fire Department, 281 E. Burdeshaw St., Dothan, AL 36303 or visiting the department's Website at

Dennis L. Rubin, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is chief of the Dothan, AL, Fire Department.