Marketing The Effectiveness Of Your Fire Department


Answer: Show value of your service to the public on a simple report card in the public's terms.

Every organization, whether private, non-profit or governmental, can best demonstrate its effectiveness through a series of measurements that the organization's various publics or customers can accept as realistic, legitimate and standard. This standard must convince the public and its officials that the tax dollars and funding that a department requests reflect superior service and value.

Since 9/11, the image of the firefighter has become a welcome constant in any number of public and private venues in America. Newspaper and magazine articles profile local firefighters and their contributions to the community, not only as a group but individually. An art museum in Tampa, FL, recently featured the photography of a firefighter from Tampa Fire and Rescue taken at ground zero.

While the public has always had a low-level awareness of firefighters, the last year has catapulted us into the limelight not seen in recent times. A spate of books from authors as prestigious as David Halberstam with his excellent work Firehouse and Dennis Smith's Report from Ground Zero to many others featuring personal accounts and commentaries of the events of 9/11 have flooded the market. In Atlanta a local marketing company created action figures named for actual firefighters in the Atlanta Fire Department. FDNY and Mattel created the Billy Blazes action figures, now marketed throughout the country. We are all now familiar with the numerous TV specials from cable and major networks about the work and the lives of firefighters. Private enterprise, long a user of firefighters to sell products, has escalated its push into the market with the use of firefighters to sell everything from insurance to bathroom cleaners to eggs.

As a marketing specialist advocating the fire service, this increase in awareness could certainly be seen as a step in the right direction. However, when we look deeper, we need to ask the question: Where is this exposure really taking us? And before we ask that question, we need to know where we want to go as a public service. Can you imagine how effective a nationally directed strategic marketing plan might be with a clear direction?

In a column titled "Who We Are And How We Are Known" (Firehouse®, August and November 2001), I noted that the present interest in and public adoration for firefighters would be the fad of a fickle public. The same "captains of industry and business" who were the models of public adoration less than a year ago are now choking on the regret of their past acts as they hang out to dry for public ridicule. This is just the reality of the marketplace. That is not to say that firefighters have not risen to a new level of appreciation and awareness. The fact remains, however, that we are a public service, financially accountable to the citizens in our jurisdictions. This is a constant of our business regardless of public image.

We might compare this to the accountability of a business and the fiduciary responsibility to stockholders. There are many differences; the biggest is that we do not make a profit. If we add more overhead costs in the form of additional firefighters, equipment or programs, it is not always easy to demonstrate the added value for the public. This will always be a one of our greatest challenges. Marketing can support us in meeting this challenge if we use it to manage the evidence. This means showing the public how the added costs will maintain the service as it adds value. Measurements are part of that equation.

What Gets Measured Gets Funded

Each department has a method of accountability. The result of these measurements can be marketed to the public as well as to the various institutions and businesses within the department's jurisdiction. This should be done in a way that customers understand how the department is using their support dollars to run an effective and efficient department.

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.

Departments interested in applying for the accreditation process may contact the CFAI, 4500 Southgate Plaza, Suite 100, Chantilly, VA. 20151 (telephone 703-691-4620).

Over the last 10 years, I have collected over 100 parameters that measure various areas of departmental effectiveness numerically. They are divided into the following areas with their respective number of indicators:

  • General fire protection (12)
  • Fire suppression (23)
  • Training (10)
  • Dispatch/communications (11)
  • Fire prevention (41)
  • Vehicle/equipment operations (12)
  • Medical (18)
  • Emergency management (17)

Examples of these measurements range from response times to annual loss as a percentage of total value protected. I would be happy to send a copy of these measurements to any interested departments or individuals through a request to my e-mail at

Sources: Managing Fire and Rescue Services (third edition, 2002) by Dennis Compton and John Granito; Commission on Fire Service Accreditation International (CFAI) website.

Ben May has over 15 years of experience creating and applying the discipline of marketing management to fire departments and emergency service organizations. He has been a firefighter and fire commissioner, and is a graduate of the Montgomery County, MD, Public Service Training Academy. May has over 25 years of experience in business-to-business marketing and sales in the U.S. and internationally. Currently, his responsibilities include developing new business 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 of arts degree in public affairs and received his master of arts degree n international communication from the American University. May is a member of the Society of Executive Fire Officers, a trustee of the Education Foundation of the Florida Fire Chiefs Association and a board member of the Tampa Firefighter's Museum. He welcomes your feedback on the column and he may be contacted at