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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An educated and informed public is our most important asset. People are more likely to support politically and financially those things which they can understand and, especially, what they value. If citizens do not see what we offer as a necessary value, they will question its need. This is especially true for a public service that receives its support from hard-earned tax dollars. It is our responsibility to make certain that we manage our customers' expectations of our service so that they understand the vital necessity and value it provides for the quality of their lives. Enter the marketing mechanism.

Marketing's Contribution

Over the past 15 years, I have observed and tried to understand the contribution marketing management can make to the fire service. This means bringing an awareness of our purposes actions and results to the citizens and institutions we protect.

Almost every private enterprise has a specific market "niche" for its products. For public emergency services, we do not have the luxury of targeted, small niches. Our market is every citizen in our community 24 hours a day. It is a formidable task with limited resources - and everybody is watching. The marketing mission for us is the maintenance and growth of our services for the protection of our citizens. It is the understanding of how we are known to each group with which we interact.

Specifically, what can firefighters and other public life safety professionals learn from marketing professionals in the business and non-profit environment that is relevant and applicable?

Our interest in marketing is growing. The number of articles, seminars and presentations about marketing for the fire service has grown significantly over the past 10 years. "Customer service" has become an established principle and an operating function in most departments. In 1998, the United States Fire Administration published an excellent manual for marketing fire departments.

Constant concerns over budgets, resources and expanded services make external and internal support a critical necessity. In public service, virtually every aspect of what we do and how we do it is under constant scrutiny. With split-second communications and information overload, a department must manage the expectations and relationships of all of its stakeholders, constituencies and customers. Marketing management as a discipline provides a framework for action to achieve this necessary and on-going goal.

Marketing is always a moving target, reinventing our business. Technology and speed create the more-with-less mentality. This may mean the public perceives that it should take fewer people, organizations and materials to get the job done more efficiently and with higher expectations.

The growth of information creates knowledge. This, in turn, creates customer sophistication. With customer sophistication comes the concept of comparison, control, value and accountability. An educated and concerned public wants to know how it receives value for the money it spends on our service. It is our responsibility locally and nationally to "manage the evidence" of the promises we keep by our actions. We do this now through various media and public affairs initiatives.

It is even more vital to manage the expectations of an involved public though education. New communications technologies bring home the possibilities of a fire-EMS agency monitoring the critical needs of an aging or at-risk segment of a department's jurisdiction one customer at a time, from the firehouse to the citizen's home. Quality is no longer determined by a "one-size-fits-all" safety standard, but rather by customer perceptions of price/value. This has a direct relation to the business we are really in.

Many years ago, the U.S. railroads defined their business as the "railroad business." The result was the slow deterioration of that once mighty contributor to the American economy as automobiles and airlines changed the face of transportation. Perhaps, if the railroads had viewed themselves as being in the transportation business, you might find have found yourself on Santa Fe Airlines.

There are over 20 various activities and services we provide besides firefighting and EMS. We are in the "Fire & Life Safety" business. This more comprehensive definition defines our real business today. It is for these reasons that the marketing discipline can contribute significantly to the fire and emergency services. This function can be the most effective when it is developed from within the organization itself and the constant feedback from the constituencies it serves. Inherent in these implications are the opportunities for fire-EMS and public service marketing.