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

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.

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.

What Does Marketing Do?

So what does marketing the fire service really mean? How does a department market itself and for what purpose? How do you do it? What kinds of tools do you need? How do you know you are doing it successfully?

Many people, even in the marketing profession, believe that the primary definition of marketing is selling or persuading someone to buy a product or service. In the fire service, an example of this might be making a "pitch" for the resources a department needs to protect the community at budget time. Perhaps we risk losing dollars to a competitive agency or risk downsizing by an unfriendly administration or a skeptical public. Selling is only one tool in the marketing mix.

The definition of marketing is simple and it has two key aspects. First, it is an exchange for mutual gain. The public receives fire and life safety protection while we receiver tax dollars for that protection. Marketing is the comprehensive, disciplined framework for action concerned with every aspect of fulfilling our citizens' safety needs and gaining the support to maintain this mission.

Marketing is selling, advertising, education and public relations. It is public information and safety education. It is community relations and customer service, and it is strategic planning. Elements of all of these disciplines are included in a balanced marketing system and its working plan; however, each is not an end in itself.

Second, marketing is a clear understanding by the public of the promises we keep. Our customers experience our service in the most intimate and needful manner (always a critical relationship in their eyes - it is their emergency). There is simply no stronger relationship or bond that can be created between a citizen and an emergency service than the experience of an incident.

Integrity in marketing means demonstrating the evidence of deeds performed. It is the fire service-marketing professional's task to make deeds and perception synonymous. This public acknowledges this when it supports us politically and financially. When both of these objectives are achieved, we have come very close to a perfect marketing balance.

Fire Service Marketing Management

Fire service marketing management is the analysis, planning, implementation and control to maintain the balance between our service delivery and our support. The goal of successful fire service marketing is to position our departments with a positive public perception based on promises we have kept in our organizational mission.

It is our citizens' positive perception of the organization that must be systematically and proactively developed. This means demonstrating the good job we do daily through many forms of marketing communications: media, neighborhood meetings, home inspections, public education, department presence at public and political forums, CPR classes, disaster-planning seminars and public demonstrations. These activities have a critical place in our mission, and they also are vital parts of any marketing plan.

All citizens and institutions provide dollars for our services, but there are many who will never use emergency response or code enforcement. These visible and participatory activities provide value-added prevention and education services while bringing an awareness of our value to the public. Constantly changing needs dictate that marketing be a dynamic system inside and outside the fire department. Before the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, most fire departments were not concerned with terrorism. Therefore, we see many departments considering contingency plans for the results of terrorist acts.

The astronomical growth of non-emergency calls has brought up the question of the use of emergency vehicles for such needs. A few departments have established non-emergency care teams to deal with these kinds of special needs. As the population ages, this kind of service may grow dramatically, freeing up emergency teams for critical incidents. The use of the ladder-tender is an example of a fulfillment of this need. This makes more economical sense than sending an aerial truck as a taxicab and a heavy-utility vehicle to a low-level incident.

Internal Marketing

Successful internal marketing means dynamic and effective external marketing. The education and intelligence level of firefighters and officers continues to increase. With more education comes individual leadership and empowerment at all levels. This means less and less of the "command and control" leadership and more of the democratic, flat organizational approach.

While this kind of leadership does not apply to an emergency incident, it does apply to 98% of all other organizational activities. This means that the input and leadership of our most important resource: our firefighters. The firefighters are "close to the customer" 24 hour a day. Information from this source comprises the very basis for marketing intelligence.

Relationship Management

Consider the number of overlapping relationships in our "Fire & Life Safety" protection system. These relationships drive our ability to get any job done or to achieve any outcome. Such stakeholders include firefighters, officers, elected officials, collateral agencies (water and police departments, public works, and building departments), union groups and regulatory agencies. How we manage these relationships is, in many ways, the single most important aspect of any marketing approach.

Next: "Selling" The Fire Service

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.