Customer Service, Door-to-Door

For some time now, I've been reading about this new "cutting-edge" concept called "customer service" or "product delivery." If I understand the proponents of this concept correctly, they are saying, in their new books and on the lecture circuit, "Treat people with respect, do the job professionally and do what you're being paid for or what you have volunteered to do."

What struck me, though, was a recent article that contended that one must be a fire chief to fully appreciate this new "cutting-edge" concept.

I have worked in this profession for over a quarter of a century. I have risen up through the ranks to my present position as a battalion chief. During my career, I have primarily served in areas where people who are from the lower socio-economic strata live. I have walked down many halls that had no working lightbulbs, watched many young people die by drugs and violence, and responded to just about every conceivable situation in which one person can hurt another. In this environment of violence, hostility and mayhem, one doesn't worry about citizens sending letters to the fire chief; in fact, at this level you get immediate feedback on your customer service - with real bad results if you do it wrong.

My point is this: In over 25 years of working the ghetto, barrio or "hood" (whatever it is currently fashionably called), I've never had a "customer service" problem. I've had many potentials, but I've come with some aids which I would like to share. Maybe these tips can help everyone with their customer care.

There must be discipline, and there should be a designated person in command of every unit or scene. Each person on each unit must know his or her job and perform that job in a professional manner or be held accountable. The bulk of our service now centers on EMS. Any member who has problems tending to the sick and injured, wherever they are, should seek other employment.

Once at the scene, do your job. Since I've been an officer, it has been my role to interact with the crowd or family and for my people to deal with the patient or problem. That way, patient care is not interrupted by a well-meaning family member and I have control of the scene.

The officer needs to recognize when a situation is going badly. For instance, the family doesn't feel you're going fast enough or, on the street, the crowd is becoming increasingly vocal. I've always worked out a phrase or word to indicate to my driver that I need police protection. Now I tell my officers to call for me when things start going badly. I don't want them feeling they are out there alone and often, if there was to ultimately be a complaint, I'd have to deal with it anyway.

In today's climate of political correctness, I don't want my officers to be paralyzed, but to be comfortable that during our 24-hour shift, I'm only minutes away to intervene. Does this diminish their ability to lead? No! In my opinion, it shifts the pressure from them to me, where it belongs. After all, I'm the customer service manager, right?

Look at the conditions and realize that when you can't intervene safely, don't. A weapon on the scene, an individual on drugs who is large and combative, a domestic situation where violence has already occurred - none of these are safe situations in which we can go to work. Protect yourself first. Get the police in first.

Understand which emergency services you can provide and also which outside resources you can place at the disposal of the victim or victims. I've read with great amusement that one chief proposed giving a lift to a civilian experiencing car trouble. Liability law in my city doesn't permit this act - but even if it did, in today's atmosphere of litigation I would strongly recommend not offering a member of the opposite sex a lift in a department vehicle if you are alone. I would, however, suggest that you call for the police and remain on the scene until they arrive.

In summary, I don't know if "customer service" is new, nor do I want to fuel a debate. I just want my people to do their jobs and then get home safely after each shift. As officers or managers, I would ask that we don't become too "cutting edge" and forget that every day our people face "customers" who are hostile, rude, impaired by drugs or alcohol, or just looking for a confrontation. Don't leave your people out there alone. They are the ones on the front lines and they may face these issues 25 or 30 times a day. They need to believe that we're not just sitting in our offices, oblivious to the realities of the street, but that we will be there for them.

Chief Concerns is a forum addressing issues of interest to chief fire officers. Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. We invite all volunteer and career chief fire officers to share their concerns, experiences and views in this column. Please submit articles to: Chief Concerns, Firehouse Magazine, 445 Broad Hollow Road, Melville, NY 11747.

Michael L. Smith is a battalion chief in the District of Columbia Fire Department.