Marketing The Effectiveness Of Your Fire Department

Question: What is the best way to demonstrate the value and effectiveness of your department to the various institutions, businesses and citizens you protect? Answer: Show value of your service to the public on a simple report card in the...

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Regardless of the positive exposure we may enjoy, each department spends significant time attending to the budgeting process, which is one of the main reasons why the marketing remains so important. However, all of the marketing in the world will not compensate for an inefficient and ineffective department.

The purpose of marketing is to uncover needs, fill the needs and demonstrate to the public that this is, in fact, what is occurring. The public must be able to understand any aspects of the process it wants to explore. Measurements allow the public to understand if we are doing a good job. It is our report card. And it needs to be framed in a way that our customers understand because they are paying the bills.

A number of measurements have been used over the years to measure the effectiveness of fire departments. One of those is the ISO rating named after the Insurance Services Office. Used for many years, this numerical rating (a low number denotes a higher rating) establishes fire insurance rates for a community based on the assessed strength of its fire protection assets and capabilities in relation to the property protected.

Most departments will use the ISO rating to show its effectiveness and efficiency (i.e., "We are an ISO 1 department"). The difficulty here is that only those in the fire service, insurance companies and the fire protection industry know the meaning of a positive, low numerical rating. The public does not understand the rating or its application to their concerns.

As an outgrowth of the "reinventing government" movement of the 1980s, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) created a program with more comprehensive measurement criteria. This program resembles the total quality management approach in which many measurements are applied to key performance factors of a fire and EMS department.

The Commission on Fire Service Accreditation International (CFAI) is the organization, which reviews over 240 separate performance measurements, which include 98 key competencies. These indicators fall into 10 categories:

  • Governance
  • Risk assessment
  • Departmental goals and objectives
  • Finance
  • Programs
  • Human resources
  • Physical assets and facilities
  • Training
  • Competency assurance
  • Internal support and external relationships

Once this exhaustive self-assessment process is completed, a review team from CFAI visits the department, analyzes the data, and recommends accreditation or continued work. The CFAI is a significant step forward in a formal and realistic assessment of a department's capabilities. At present, there are approximately 75 departments with accreditation. There are a significant number of departments at various levels of the process of accreditation and the CFAI is gaining momentum at the executive levels of the fire service. However, there are 18,000 fire departments in the U.S., so this is a daunting task.

The question is whether the public it protects understands the importance of CFAI well enough to maintain financial support of the department when it is budget time. If very few outside high-level fire service circles know about this excellent tool or how to use it, then it will have limited effectiveness. This is unfortunate because it can be a very good instrument for promoting the fire and emergency medical services, raising departmental standards as well as morale. It can also be used to silence the complaints of our critics. However, all of our markets or constituencies will have to be persuaded that this is the accepted tool of measurement. If they don't, then all of the measurements we can produce will only demonstrate an efficient department that no community will support.

Measurements The Public Can Understand

We must always balance the community's perceived needs with departmental capabilities. A marketing plan is the right tool at this point. What is really needed is a simplified version of the CFAI results distilled from all of the measurements. A department can post these so that the public can understand the measurements' relationship to their needs and those of the department. This may be like a simple "report card" of five to 10 key parameters "translated" for the public and the businesses and institutions in the jurisdiction. Then it is a matter of marketing the report card in a manner that maintains financial and popular support for the department while it demonstrates the department's and the U.S. fire service's high standards as an American institution.