Marketing The Fire Problem


Answer: The facts are that the United States and Canada continue to lead the western world in the number of fires, fatalities, injuries and property destruction from the ravages of fire.

Photo by Chuck Snyder
Firefighters in Lewes, DE, operate at an early-morning fire in a boatyard that destroyed three boats and damaged three others. More than a million fires occur annually in the United States, yet few Americans - including many in the fire-rescue service - understand the magnitude of the nation's fire problem.

The recent tragedies in West Warwick, RI, and Hartford, CT, bring home the origin and central reason for the creation of the fire service: to save lives; help the injured; confine and extinguish fire whenever it is out of control; and minimize the damage from fire. This also means preventing fires before they can begin through codes and their enforcement as well as inspections and public education.

I am constantly amazed at the utter ignorance of otherwise intelligent individuals about the nature and scope of the fire problem in North America. Not only are our citizens - customers - ignorant of the problem, but also there are some in the fire service who are not completely up to date with the current state of the problem across the nation and in their communities.

Ask any of the firefighters or officers around you these questions:

  • How many fires occur in the United States annually and on any given day?
  • How many people in this country are killed in fires annually and how many are injured?
  • How much property is destroyed annually by fire in this country?
  • What are the three major causes of fire in this country?

One would think it only natural that we in the fire service would know the exact detail of the fire problem facing our communities and our country. Not necessarily. Over the last two decades, the basic mission of the fire service has evolved to include over 20 different services besides fire prevention, inspection and suppression. After 9/11, that list has expanded even more. So with all of the knowledge we must accumulate, it is not difficult to understand how we can lose sight of the facts and figures that govern the origin of the fire service.

More than a million fires still occur annually in the United States.

The point: fires still occur in the most technologically advanced civilization on earth and we have one of the worst problems in the western world. We should all be familiar with the scope of the problem.

Let's consider fire prevention, inspection and public education. The nature of all three is to prevent a fire before it can break out. Much of this part of our jobs is based on selling certain behavior changes to each citizen, business owner and lawmaker so that the environment becomes safer before suppression, the last resort, is summoned. Could you imagine a good salesperson attempting to enlighten a customer about something that is for his or her welfare without the knowledge and understanding of the facts of the problem as a basis for discussion?

Think of it this way. We are not selling another widget or a better car or a great bottle of wine. We are selling something of great value: the continued right to live a safe existence in our communities without fear of loss from fire gone out of control. We are selling the right of a group of people to go to a club to watch a band without fear of being burned alive, if not wedged in an exit they should not have taken.

Here is an example of the way you could begin a discussion of the problem to a group or individual. You can tell the customer that you would like to take a few minutes to discuss the fire problem, both nationally and in your community. You might point out that in 1978 the fire problem was seriously out of control. You can relate that a report called America Burning pointed to the seriousness of the problem and suggested ways to reduce the problem. You could then point out that in spite of the fact that we have greatly reduced the fire problem in this country since that time, we still have the reputation of having the worst record in the western world for destruction by fire. You will probably get a get a blank stare and a response like, "I had no idea."

Then you can take the conversation in this direction. Here is an idea of the scope of the problem today in the U.S., not even counting 9/11. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), fire departments in this country responded to 1,734,500 fires in 2001, an increase of 1.6% from the year before. (All statistics are from NFPA Report Fire Loss in the United States 2001.) Now, those are fires that we know about through responses to NFPA surveys. Remember, there are over 27,330 fire departments in the U.S., so one must consider the departments that did not have a survey. Some 521,500 structure fires occurred, an increase of 3.2% from 2000. A total of 396,500 fires, or 76% of all structure fires, occurred in residential properties. There were 6,196 deaths, of which 2,451 were from the 9/11 tragedy; 3,110 civilian fire deaths occurred in the home. There were 21,100 injuries, of which 800 resulted from 9/11. Nationwide there was a fire death every three hours with an injury every 34 minutes. In terms of property loss, excluding the events of 9/11, count $8,874,000. When one adds in 9/11, the number jumps to $44,023,000,000.

Here is the bottom line. Every 18 seconds, a fire department responds to a fire somewhere in the nation. A fire occurs in a structure at the rate of one every 60 seconds, and in particular a residential fire occurs every 80 seconds. Fires occur in vehicles at the rate of one every 90 seconds, and there is a fire in an outside property every 37 seconds. In terms of deaths, here is the picture: imagine two fully loaded 747 jets colliding in midair with all souls onboard being lost every month.

Now that you have their attention, you can begin the discussion of how this problem relates to the problem in your community. If you were then to discuss other types of incidents, you might say that in addition to structure fires, fire departments responded to 12,331,000 medical aid calls, 985,000 hazardous materials calls and 838,500 mutual aid calls. In all, fire departments in the US responded to 20,965,500 incidents.

Recently, Louie Fernandez, senior bureau chief of Public Affairs for Miami Dade Fire-Rescue, coined a phrase, "crisis marketing," the point being that when a major fire breaks out like the one at The Station in Rhode Island, that is the time to immediately begin a media marketing campaign to strengthen the overall initiatives that we all know are critically significant.

This is the tactical portion of a good public affairs plan. You might call it marketing ICS. If your department has taken the time to cultivate the critical relationships in your community (i.e., businesses, institutions, government agencies, organizations and the media), you are poised to deploy the information necessary to make an impact. This includes deployment of engine companies for inspections and visibility.

Unfortunately, we are still living by the catastrophic theory of fire prevention, from the Cocoanut Grove fire (491 dead in Boston in 1942) to the Happy Land Social Club fire (87 dead in the Bronx, NY, in 1990) and now the fire in Rhode Island. This does not need to be the norm in our society. We have been dealing with the problem for so long this way that we think this dysfunctional approach is normal. This is not the case in countries such as the U.K. or Japan. In those countries, the emphasis and budget spend is on prevention, inspection, in-structure suppression, stricter codes and public education. But, these are thoughts for another column. For now, let's remember to use the marketing mechanism to make certain that the citizens, institutions and businesses we protect are safer from the first reason we are in business: the fire problem.

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 in 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