Fire Service Marketing Management: The Emergence Of A New Discipline – Part 1

Ben May explains why fire departments are finding it necessary to better manage their marketing efforts and the image they present to their customers.


I wish my wife, my mother, everyone who has ever asked me why I do what I do could see the humanity, the sympathy, the sadness of these eyes, because in them is the reason I continue to be a firefighter." Dennis Smith, Report from Engine Co. 82 Most people really do not know what we do...


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I wish my wife, my mother, everyone who has ever asked me why I do what I do could see the humanity, the sympathy, the sadness of these eyes, because in them is the reason I continue to be a firefighter."

Dennis Smith, Report from Engine Co. 82

Most people really do not know what we do. Perhaps they do not need to know except that when they dial 911 we are there within a certain timeframe with the service that is needed. There are many more reasons for them to know what we do and the reasons why than those stated in Dennis Smith's landmark book about the lives of firefighters.

The poet Kahlil Gibran once wrote, "Work is love made visible." For firefighters, this definition has a special meaning. Our "love" is the protection of our citizens' first right found in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution: the right to life. That is our mission. We protect the first right so that our citizens can enjoy the other two: liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The natural extension of this mission is the protection of property. Add prevention, EMS, hazmat, disaster preparedness, public education, code enforcement and terrorism and you have rounded out the basic premise for our existence. Sounds fairly simple, doesn't it?

Our mission is one that we live with passion and abandon. It elicits all kinds of death-defying feats and creative solutions to life-threatening problems that baffle most people under any circumstances, let alone under stressful, uncontrollable, life-threatening emergency ones.

Under the influence of our mission and its goals, some of us are called upon even to make the final sacrifice. Some years ago, during a difficult period in my department, a young lieutenant told me that he had only one regret about his job: that he could not have two lives so that he could come back again to be a firefighter. This is not an unusual statement in our profession. Ours is, indeed, a noble calling.

The Importance Of Marketing

What do these observations and vignettes have to do with the idea of marketing for the fire service? Everything - and at the gut level of our existence.

You may love the fact that you are a firefighter. You may gain an inner satisfaction knowing that you work with some of the most intelligent, highly motivated and caring people you have ever known. You may glow with an inner pride when you have returned from a successful "knockdown." You may swell with satisfaction after having rescued a trapped citizen who will forever remember your professionalism and care. You may know that you really made a difference after delivering a prevention message that really got through to a group of citizens or children.

But, if you do not understand the importance of marketing as a discipline or how to use it as a tool everyday, you may not have the privilege of continuing do be a firefighter in the manner you have come to love. If the fire service is to thrive, it must adopt a marketing perspective. Our existence is not completely dependent on our competency. Just because we do a good job does not necessarily mean we will stay in business in our present form, especially if nobody knows what we do, how we do it or why we do it. This is true locally as well as nationally.

Just last February, The Wall Street Journal featured a page-one article, "As Blazes Get Fewer, Firefighters Take On Some Eclectic Roles." The article summarily purposed to give a thumbnail sketch of the last 30 years of the fire problem in the United States and the role of the fire service. It then detailed the changing nature of our jobs, questioning the efficiency of our approach to fire and emergency service protection.

The author then went on to note the financial and political implications of this approach for local government. It was not a pretty picture. One did not come away from that article with a sense that dollars were being efficiently spent to deal with fire and emergency services problems. I wonder who "managed the evidence" for that article. This is a good example of the need to possess an understanding of strategic marketing management for public services.

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